(Under)Developing Africa

1In the nineteenth-century, European geographers explored the African continent and then aided and abetted the colonial conquest. In the twentieth century, they mostly served the cause of establishing and maintaining colonial rule during the first half, and then worked in the cause that came to be called Africa's 'development', in combination with new generations of African professional geographers. This project of development – which in most definitions combines economic growth with improving social welfare – began in earnest largely with the close of World War II, but it started on highly doubtful terrain.

After all, European colonial rule more or less established the rules and parameters by which Africa would be incorporated into the world capitalist economy, in such a way that advancing within it would prove elusive for most African states once they achieved independence (for most colonies, this came in the 1960s and 1970s). In 1972, the Egyptian economist Samir Amin subdivided Africa's colonial economies as 'Africa of the Colonial Trade Economy', 'Africa of the Concessions', and 'Africa of the Labor Reserves', and proceeded to argue that one could in effect still see these three categories of economies at work in the underdevelopment of the continent. Much of his argument continues to hover over Africa's generally difficult relationship to the Western idea of development.

(Under)Developing Africa

Briefly, the colonial trade economies – predominantly Atlantic West Africa – were those in which Europeans determined the trade, markets, and prices for a thin range of one or two commodities (often primary agricultural goods) that each colony produced for European industrial interests. African producers maintained control over their land and labor, but under severely constricted conditions that tied their economic fortunes to European capital. Thus Senegal and Gambia came to be almost exclusively dependent on the production and export of raw groundnuts, whereas in Cote d'Ivoire or Ghana it was raw cocoa beans – to be then processed in Europe or the US, where the manufacturing value added accrues. As a direct legacy of this colonial system, for instance, West Africa produces more then 70% of the world's unprocessed cocoa in a given year, and yet almost none of the world's chocolate bars.

In concessionary colonies like those of the Congo Basin, huge stretches of the territory were simply handed over to European companies to administer as they saw fit, for their profit. This commonly resulted in the same heavy dependence on one or two exports tied to the whims of European or American producers and consumers, but with the added elements of land alienation, severe labor exploitation, and a more limited interest of the colonial administrations in human development. Former concessionary territories often saw the most violent processes of decolonization, and they have had the most violent postcolonial experiences – most obviously in the cases of Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In most respects, they remained tied to export enclave economies of resource extraction dominated by European and American transnational corporations.

Part of the story of the underdevelopment of Mozambique and the DRC, though, ties in to Amin's third category, that of the labor reserves. Labor reserve colonies typically, though not exclusively, were those that provided workers to European settlers or capitalists, on mines and plantations (Amin also placed much of the Sahel in this category, since Sahelian labor became central to the cocoa industry of Atlantic West Africa). In many labor reserve colonies, Europeans took the best lands for agriculture and the most valuable resources, leaving Africans to less fertile and densely crowded reserves. Much of southern African today bears witness to the enduring legacies of this model of 'development': more geographically extensive infrastructure for the territories, but embedded in a highly unequal system for the distribution of development across classes and races, as in the extreme case of South Africa under apartheid. Most former colonies of this variety retain some infrastructural and industrial advantages when compared with the rest of the continent, but with vestiges of the severe dualism (geographically and socially) enduring as well.

The net result of all three types of colonial economies was that most African countries came to independence with heavy dependence on a limited number of exports (the trading, marketing, and pricing of which lay out of their hands), with a shortage of indigenous capital and powerful presence of foreign capitalists, and a high degree of dualism dividing the parts of the country strongly linked with the world economy and those disaggregated from it.

The post independence development era began with grand ambitions, but 40 years or so on from its origins, the project of development has left Africa with a few 'miracle' cases (South Africa, Botswana, and Mauritius are often cited), several 'mirages' (countries like Kenya or Cameroon where the surface might look good, but it is a fac?ade of development only), and much exclusion and poverty. The blame for the lack of development on the continent can be placed with both exogenous and endogenous factors. History, as we have seen, plays a key role as a largely exogenous factor working against development. The Western agenda for development intersected directly with the Cold War, and many resource rich or resource poor African countries (Angola, DRC, UgandaSomalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, and others) were caught in the Cold War crossfire, as another exogenous factor. Declining producer prices for many African exports coincided with skyrocketing prices for petroleum in the 1970s to leave many African countries seriously in debt. Yet endogenous factors have also been at work. The first generation of independent leaders often had great ambitions to set out on alternative development paths, frequently with expensive showcase projects to highlight how they were different. In other cases, corruption, greed, mismanagement, or internal conflict siphoned millions of dollars of Western development aid or investment into unproductive channels that did little to improve the quality of life of ordinary Africans.

Regardless of the path toward development that African leaders chose, by the early 1980s, most countries had fallen into external debt so large as to force countries into signing on to restrictive plans created by the World Bank to recover its loans. These Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) yielded few tangible results and created havoc in many countries politically. By the 1990s, SAPs gave way to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) initiative, but HIPC itself became mired in its own inadequacy, morphing into aid projects that required the creation of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) in order to receive the money. The PRSPs themselves were largely the SAPs in friendlier language.

The development era has transformed Africa and its connectivity to global political economy, alongside the continuities from earlier eras. There are a few cases where economic development has led to a broader extension of a decent quality of life to more Africans. But what one more readily sees is a splintering of African countries in sociogeographic terms, such that some parts of each country – typically, well to do enclaves in cities – are highly integrated into the global economy and global cultural flows, while many areas – sometimes right next door to those enclaves – are witnessing increasing deprivation and dislocation.