Sunday, December 14, 2014

Political Economy of African Underdevelopment


The African continent has been looked down as a group of under developed nations without a stable economic, political and social setup. Our common sense is mixed with racial overtones, which we carry from casteist- colonial mind set. We are confined superficially to corruption, dictatorship and other fringe issues in understanding the underdevelopment in African continent. However, the problems of Africa have deeper and stronger roots.

According to World Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (WANGO)[1], there are 4502 non-governmental organisations working in African continent. These organisations bring in huge amount of aid from developed countries in the name of development of the continent. But according to a recent NGO report titled “Honest Accounts? The true story of Africa’s billion dollar losses”[2], around $134 billion flows into the continent every year in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid, but $192 billion is taken out, in the form of profits by foreign companies, tax dodging and the costs of adapting to climate change with a net loss of $58 billion a year for Africa i.e., profit for outsiders. This kind of exploitation is not a new phenomenon in African continent. It is happening for a long period of capitalist expansion before and after colonialism. We need to comprehend the historical undercurrents of African underdevelopment to clearly understand the contemporary situation.

Before and During Colonialism

Except few parts of Ethiopia, Africa has never passed through the feudal stage of political economy. Before 15th century, the predominant form of social relations was communalism, based on family and kinship. Matrilineal and Patrilineal ties existed.  The land was owned by family or clan and labour was family or clan based.[3] The common sharing of resources has kept the communities self-sufficient with whatever they produced. There was no visible epoch of slavery in Africa, except few places in North Africa. In these communal societies, the war captives were in a similar position to slaves, but their children were integrated into the society. The absence of feudalism or capitalism never gave them the scope for perpetual exploitation of other humans. The beginning of bourgeoisie mode of production in Europe started looking for unknown territories to exploit the resources, labour and market.

The Atlantic Slave Trade, which was practised from 16th till 19th century, to overcome the shortcoming of labour force in Europe during capitalist development, was one of the darkest periods in human history, which has consumed more than 10 million African lives. “Estaban Montejo, an African who ran away from a Cuban slave plantation in the 19th century, recalled that his people were enticed into slavery by the colour red. He said: It was the scarlet which did for the Africans; both the kings and the rest surrendered without a struggle. When the kings saw that the whites were taking out these scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving, they told the blacks, ‘Go on then, go and get a scarlet handkerchief’, and the blacks were so excited by the scarlet they ran down to the ships like sheep and there they were captured”(Rodney:1973;98). Soon the African rulers also started involving in slave trade to get European goods, which started the war between communities to hand over the slaves to Europeans.

Slowly through the trade relation with Africa, the Capitalist were able to change the nature of mode of production from subsistence towards market oriented. The agriculture and other primary goods were moving towards the market demand rather than satisfying the needs of local population. This created divisions within the society where many who were not part of this integration were deprived of basic goods. Thus the European capitalist started implanting the capitalist mode of production forcefully over the communal mode of production with an aim of deriving more profits. This disturbed the stability of African society, as capitalism as a progressive mode of production emerged in Europe without any imposition.

Thus during colonialism, due to the contradictions of capitalism i.e., falling rate of profit, they started to subjugate and integrate the foreign economies to have access to market, natural resources and labour for increasing the profit, much needed for the sustenance of capitalist mode of production. According to Claude Ake (1981; 32)[4], the capitalist penetration in Africa involved firstly imposing a common currency, discarding the earlier ones. This even started before colonisation by imposing the foreign currency in trade relations, thereby annihilating the local currencies[5]. Secondly, monetization of economy by appropriating land by force and imposing wage labour. Thirdly by imposing taxes to be paid in European money. Finally in the contemporary times the capitalism penetrates Africa through modern credit and banking systems. The trade (unequal) between the colony and colonisers has been an important mechanism for integration of African economies into European capitalist system. This has resulted into various changes in the social structure by extending the capitalist social relations, extending agrarian capitalism, proletarianisation of peasants and rudimentary development of local bourgeoisie.

These artificially imposed structural links and structural interdependence created unequal relation between the colonised and the coloniser, which is still continuing. The division of labour runs in the form of Africa being a primary goods supplier and metropole (Europe, the United States) being specialised in manufactured goods. By flooding the foreign manufactured goods, the local trade and traditional crafts were completely destroyed. Even today, in Eritrea, the Chinese goods have flooded the market fully leading to deindustrialization, as there does not exist any local demand for manufacturing goods or industrialisation. The colonisers did invest in certain infrastructure building, accordingly to transport the goods out of country. But, the emphasis of the colonisers was to recover these public investments with good return in shortest possible time (Ake; 1981:38). According to the annual report of Colonial Development Advisory Committees (1939)[6], the British allocated just 8 million pounds for development of colonies and within that 1, 51,000 pounds for industrialisation related projects. But they have spent only 23,000 pounds for industrialisation related projects.

Thus colonialism created financial, trade and technological dependence, which is still continuing. And the colonisers were conscious enough to not create a local bourgeoisie class in colonised countries, as economic strength might create more demand for freedom. At the time of independence, most of the colonised countries were suffering from poverty, illiteracy and other social evils, which were imposed on them in the process of integration of their mode of production with capitalist mode of production. The arbitrary division of borders by the colonisers at the time of independence further complicated and aggravated the ethnic and tribe based conflicts in the region.

After Independence

At the time of independence, all the African countries were already integrated(dependent) with the world capitalist economy without any strong capital base, technological base and knowledge base, which were deprived to most of the population to keep them dependent on colonisers. Rigidity of international division of labour never gave them space to break free from the fixed role of primary producers. Again they were forced to depend on foreign capital, technology and skill to develop their economy. Many attempts to industrialise by import substitution further pushed them into debt trap, as the heavy importation of capital goods needed more finance capital. Apart from this the restricted access to western market, competitive advantage of developed countries in manufacturing sectors etc were other major hurdles in industrialising these countries.

Further, Modernisation theory[7], developed in 1940’s and 50’s insisted that the 3rd world underdevelopment can be overcome only by integrating their economy completely with the world capitalist economy. They emphasised that underdevelopment is the initial stage and even the western countries went through that stage. They saw the development as a unilinear process, where every nation has to undergo it. But the capitalist mode of development experienced by the western countries is entirely different from African experience. Capitalism is considered as a progressive mode of production, compared to other previous mode of productions, as it can trigger development by reinvesting the surplus or profit created during the process of trade. Western countries’ development owes its allegiance to the surplus created during the initial phase of capitalist development not only through trade, but also through colonialism. This has laid a strong foundation for further development. But, as far as African countries are concerned, the kind of capitalism that is practised is what Claude Ake calls ‘Dependent capitalism’. Here due to absence of national bourgeoisie, the foreign capital is the major source of investment. The national bourgeoisie acts as comprador for international finance capital. In such cases, the surplus is extracted back to the investor country, rather than reinvested back in Africa. This led to draining of national resources out of country without any substantial reinvestment. This happens in India also, as we see Pepsi and Coke destroying our natural resource of water and at the same time transporting the surplus back to their investor country.

The present neoliberal political economy with its Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) has further emasculated the already suffering political economies of Africa. But such kind of exploitative structures were being laid in African continent even before colonisation. What we see now is just the continuation of the exploitation in newer forms. The politics of Aid and other such gimmicks practiced by various development agencies were to console the already bleeding African pride and to make them bleed more in future. Without understanding such structural realities and its implications we find easy solutions in democratisation and anti-corruption moves. The belief in such superficial solutions is a sign of racism and casteism which teach us not to see the structural reality and dwell on metaphysical abstraction of development.

Notes and References



[3] Rodney, Walter (1973), How Europe Underdeveloped Africa?. Tanzanian Publishing House: Dar-e-salaam.

[4] Ake, C. (1981). A Political Economy of Africa, Nigeria: Longman

[5] The local currencies before integration into world market includes gold dinars or mithquals, gold dust, cloth money, copper rods, Iron, cowries, manillas etc.

[6] Colonial Office (1939), Annual Report, United Kingdom: Colonial Development Advisory Committee

[7] Peet, R., & Hartwick, E. (1999), Theories of Development, New York: The Guilford Press

The author has worked at College of Arts and Social Sciences, Eritrea, Africa.

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