The influence of ideas and the power relationships that lead to those ideas on development in Africa

by Issa G. Shivji

[Ideas have important consequences in real life. Ideas are the way human beings try to understand the world and address major challenges. This excellent article describes the ideas that have influenced African development, where they have come from, where they have gone to, and why. He discusses the ideas, where they came from, and their influence from the colonial period to post-independence rule, the onset of structural adjustment programs in the 1980s, and the ‘new’ development discourse of neo-liberalism/globalization. Hunger Notes]


‘From development to poverty reduction,’ sums up the trajectory of the development discourse in Africa over the last four decades since independence. This development marks significant shifts, not only in economic approaches and policies, but also in academic theories and political ideologies underpinning the discourse. In this article, my aim is to reflect on broad trends in the changing discourse unencumbered by details and empirical data.

I will organise my reflections around four aspects of the discourse: first the institutional and social agency of development; second, its ideological rationalization or justification; third, the theories underlying the discourse and, fourth, its politics. The contextual theme running through the discourse is Africa’s place and role in the global political economy and its relationship with the developed North, or, more correctly, the imperial factor.

Although my subject is not really the history of the development discourse, some periodisation is necessary to highlight the breaks and continuities in the ideas on development. The first two decades after independence, roughly the 1960s and 1970s, may be called the ‘age of developmentalism’. The next decade, that is the 1980s, has been characterised as Africa’s lost decade. This is the period which spawned various structural adjustment programmes or SAPs under the tutelage of the IMF and the World Bank. SAPs prepared the ground for and dovetailed into the next, or the current period, which may be characterised as the ‘age of globalisation’.

The Age of Developmentalism

The struggle for independence in Africa was first and foremost an assertion of the humanness of the African people after five centuries of domination and humiliation of the slave trade and colonialism. In the words of Tom Mboya, the struggle for independence was the ‘rediscovery of Africa by Africans’ while Amilcar Cabral described it as the ‘re-Africanisation of minds’ or ‘rebecoming Africans’. National development became the passion of politicians and the ‘great expectation’ of the people. In the vision of the more articulate nationalist leaders like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, the independent state had a double task, that of building the nation and developing the economy. The state in Africa, Nyerere argued, preceded the nation, rather than the other way round. Thus the national project was from the start, top-down, and statist.

The colonial economy and society were anything but national. In the scramble for Africa, the colonial powers had divided the continent into mini-countries where boundaries cut through cultural, ethnic and economic affinities. This was made worse by the policy of divide and rule, leaving behind uneven development in an extreme form. Some regions were more developed than others. Some ethnic groups were labelled martial, providing a recruiting ground for soldiers; others were turned into labour reservoirs; some were characterised as “intelligent” and moderately entrepreneurial as opposed to the rest who were inherently indolent and lazy. All were of course uncivilized, uncultured, undisciplined pagans whose souls needed to be saved and whose skins needed to be thrashed.

The colonial economy was typically disarticulated, almost tailor-made, for exploitation by colonial capital, linked to the metropolitan trade and capital circuits. Extractive industries like mining predominated. Plantation agriculture existed side by side with subsistence peasant cultivation, all concentrating on one or a couple of crops for export according to the needs of the metropolitan economy.

Different colonial powers left behind different forms and traditions of public administration, culture, cuisine, dance and education, elementary as it was, all concentrated in towns. The urban and the rural were literally two countries within one; one alien, modern, a metropolitan transplant barred to the native – while the other stagnating and frozen in the so-called tradition or custom. But neither the modern nor the traditional were organically so. Both were colonial constructs.

No other continent suffered as much destruction of its social fabric through foreign imperial domination as did Africa. I have traced these initial conditions on the eve of independence for two reasons. Firstly, to underline the fact that the nationalist project faced a formidable task on the morrow of independence. Secondly, to highlight an even more formidable reality, which was that the state that was supposed to carry out the twin tasks of nation-building and economic development was itself a colonial heritage. The colonial state was a despotic state, a metropolitan police and military outpost, in which powers were concentrated and centralized and where law was an unmediated instrument of force and where administrative fiat was more a rule, than the rule of law.

The nationalist vision thus called for a revolutionary transformation not only of the economy and society but also the state. A few nationalist visionaries attempted, but none succeeded. The post-independence international context was no more propitious than the colonial. Independence found Africa in the midst of Cold War and the rising imperial power, the United States, for whom any assertion of national self-determination was “communism”, to be hounded and destroyed, by force if necessary, by manipulation and deception, if possible. The early story of the gruesome assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, and the continuing story of military coups, assassinations, and resistance to national liberation wars and civil strife in Africa, in most of which imperialism had a hand, bear testimony to what the former colonial powers and the rising imperial power could do to retain their collective global hegemony.

These where then the initial conditions, so to speak, within which African nationalists had to realise their dream of nation-building and economic development and to answer their people’s ‘great expectations’. Invariably, the agency of change was the state since there was virtually no social class which could shoulder the task of national development. Nor was foreign capital obliging in spite of various protective laws and incentive schemes put in place by the African governments.

Invariably, nationalist politicians turned to the state. African governments of all ideological hues – from capitalist Kenyans through socialist Tanzanians to Marxists of various inclinations- all resorted to the state for their economic programmes. The post-independence economic programmes, contrary to the current propaganda from the West, were designed by the erstwhile World Bank. In effect it involved intensification of the monoculture agriculture for export; some enclaves of import-substitution industrialization and throwing open of the extractive and resource based industries to transnational corporations.

The state had to be manned. The colonial bureaucracy was almost exclusively White at the top and immigrant in the middle. The education and health infrastructure had to be expanded, both for pragmatic as well as political reasons. Africanisation of the civil service could not be resisted nor could the basic welfare demands of the population.

Provision of basic services by the state as a matter of fact also served to legitimise the otherwise authoritarian rule of the political elite. The state bureaucracy grew by leaps and bounds. Nationalism thus resolved itself into various ideologies of developmentalism. ‘We should run while others walk’, politicians declared. The academia was dominated from the North. Post-independence economies were typically dual economies. There was the traditional sector, rural, unproductive, backward, lacking entrepreneurial spirit and governed by ascription or the ‘economy of affection’. Development consisted in modernizing the traditional society.

The dominance of modernization paradigm was challenged by young academics coming out of post-independence universities. Where there was relatively a freer space, as in Tanzania of the 60s and 70s, intense debates raged between modernizers and radical nationalists calling themselves African socialists or Ujamaaists or Marxists. African progressives placed history of the development of underdevelopment and the role of imperialism as the process of worldwide accumulation, at the centre of their analysis and understanding. The traditional, they argued, was not quite traditional, nor the modern quite modern; rather both belonged to the system of international capitalism which reproduced development in the metropoles and underdevelopment in the peripheries. Development therefore was not a process of changing ‘pattern variables’ or looking for modernizing elites but rather a process of class struggle.

Meanwhile, the state became both the site of power struggles as well as accumulation. Radical nationalists, who showed any vision of transforming their societies, were routed through military coups or assassinations. A few who survived compromised themselves and became compradors or tolerated imperial arrogance for pragmatic reasons.

Everywhere, politics became authoritarian, whether in the form of one-party states or outright military dictatorships. Liberal constitutional orders imposed by the departing colonial states did not survive as the underlying logic of the colonial despotic state reasserted itself.

State positions opened up opportunities for seeking rents. Conspicuous consumption at home, a little investment in unproductive activities to make quick profits and a lot of stashing of funds in foreign bank accounts was, and perhaps still is, the typical characteristic of this class. Thus very little serious domestic private accumulation took place. Whatever investment that did take place was public, by the state.

During the first one-and-half decade of independence the African economies showed modest growth rates; modest in comparison to other continents but impressive given the initial conditions at the time of independence. Investment and savings ranged between 15 to 20 per cent of the GDP. Primary and secondary school enrolment was expanded. Tertiary education, which in many countries literally did not exist during colonial times, was introduced. Medical and health statistics also showed improvement. But this growth and development was unsustainable. It was predicated on the reinforcement of colonial foundations.

Growth in agriculture production was based on extensive cultivation rather than a rise in productivity through chemicalization, mechanization and irrigation. It depended heavily on exports of a few primary commodities traded on a hostile and adverse international market. The growth in the manufacturing industry was heavily of the import-substitution type with little internal linkages and dependent on import of intermediary inputs. Investment was largely public while domestic private capital was stashed away in foreign countries. One estimate has it that by 1990, 37 per cent of Africa’s wealth had flown outside the continent. (Mkandawire & Soludo 1999:11) To top it all, foreign capital concentrated in extractive industries which simply hemorrhaged the economy rather than contribute to its development.

During this period, the developmental state also borrowed heavily whether for productive or prestigious projects. Petro-dollars accumulated by international banks during the 1973 oil crisis were off-loaded in the form of cheap loans to developing countries. By the end of 1970s, cheap loans turned into heavy debt burdens. By this time, the limits of the early growth were also reached and the economic shocks of the late seventies plunged African economies into deep crisis. Numbers fell, growth rates became negative, debt repayments became unsustainable, fiscal imbalances went out of control, and so did inflation. Social services declined, infrastructure deteriorated and one after another African governments found themselves at the door of IMF and the Paris Club pleading for mercy.

The 1980s, described by economists as Africa’s ‘lost decade’, was also the transition decade which marked the beginning of the decline of developmentalism and the rise of neo-liberalism, euphemistically called, globalisation.

The crisis, the lost decade and the specter of marginalisation. In 1981 the World Bank published its notorious report, ‘Accelerated development for Africa: an Agenda for Africa’. It was certainly an agenda for Africa set by the erstwhile Bretton Woods institutions with the backing of Western countries but it had little to do with development, accelerated or otherwise. The report and the subsequent structural adjustment programmes concentrated on stabilization measures: getting rid of budget deficits, bringing down rates of inflation, getting prices right, unleashing the market and liberalising trade. According to the World Bank, the villain of the declining economic performance in Africa was the state, it was corrupt and dictatorial, it had no capacity to manage the economy and allocate resources rationally, it was bloated with bureaucracy, and nepotism was its mode of operation. The BWIs would not bail out the crisis ridden economies unless the governments adopted structural adjustment programmes to get stabilization fundamentals right.

Balancing budgets involved cutting out subsidies to agriculture and spending on social programmes, including education and health. Unleashing the market meant doing away with protection of infant industries and rolling back the state from economic activity. The results of SAPs were devastating as many studies by researchers have shown. Social indicators like education, medical care, health, nutrition, rates of literacy and life expectancy all declined. Deindustrialization set in. Redundancies followed. In short, even some of the modest achievements of the nationalist or developmentalist period were lost or undermined.

As the international situation changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western imperialist powers regained their ideological initiative. The neo-liberal package of marketisation, privatisation and liberalisation now became the policy for, but not of the African states. Good performers would be praised and rewarded with more aid while the insubordinate and recalcitrant would be parodied and left to its own wit. While aid had always come with strings, now there was no attempt to disguise it. Political conditionalities were added to economic conditionalities. Policy making slipped out of the hands of the African state as Western financed policy consultants in their thousands jetted all over the continent with blue prints of policy on Poverty Reduction Strategies and manuals on good governance on their computers, gobbling up some 4 billion dollars annually. In 1985, to give just one example, foreign experts resident in Equatorial Guinea were paid an amount three times the total government wage bill of the public sector.[Mkandawire & Soludo ibid.:137]

National liberation ideologies have been rubbished and national self-determination itself has been declared passé. Africa is told, it has only one choice: either to get integrated fully into the globalised world or be marginalised.

African leaders are left with little options: ‘you are either with globalisation or doomed!’ They have fallen in line one after another even if it means disowning their own past. Blair’s Commission for Africa report, which consisted of prominent Africans including one president and one prime minister, castigates the whole of the last three decades, which virtually means the whole of post-independence period, as “lost decades”. The primary responsibility is placed on the African state for bad governance and lack of accountability, totally ignoring the role of imperialism in both the exploitation of African resources and supporting of non-democratic states when it suited their interests. Africans are told they have no capacity to think and African states are told they have no capacity to make correct policies.

The age of globalisation and the Pan-Africanist resistance

Globalisation expresses itself in Africa as neo-liberalism. These are a set of policies around stabilization of monetary and fiscal fundamentals on the one hand, and marketisation, liberalisation and privatisation of the economy, on the other. The failures of earlier SAPs and their unrelenting critique by African intellectuals saw some modification of the programmes in the 1990s.

In short, the underlying thrust of the neo-liberal and globalised development “discourse”, which centres on policy-making, is deeper integration of African economies into the global capital and market circuits without fundamental transformation. It is predicated on private capital, which in Africa translates into foreign private capital, as the ‘engine of growth’. It centres on economic growth without asking whether growth necessarily translates into development. It banishes the issues of equality and equity to the realm of rights, not development. ‘Human-centered and people-driven’ development which were the kingpin of African alternatives, such as the Lagos Plan of Action, are pooh-poohed into non-existence as the African people are reduced to ‘the chronically poor’ who are the subject matter of papers on strategies for poverty reduction rather than the authors and drivers of development. It villainises African states and demonizes African bureaucracies as corrupt, incapable and unable to learn. They need globalised foreign advisors and consultants, who are now termed development practitioners, to monitor and oversee them.

In this “discourse” the developmental role of the state is declared dead and buried. Instead, it is assigned the role of a “chief” to supervise the globalisation project under the tutelage of imperialism, now called, development partners. The irony of the recent Commission for Africa was that it was convened, constituted and chaired by a British Prime Minister, while an African president and a prime minister sat on it as members. This symbolizes the nature of the so-called “new partnership”. The message is clear: African “co-partners” in African development are neither equal nor in the driver’s seat.

But the neo-liberal project in Africa has not been without resistance. As Nyerere observed in his Preface to a book by African scholars significantly sub-titled, ‘Beyond Dispossession and dependence’: Africa’s history is not only one of slavery, exploitation and colonialism’ it is also a story of struggle against these evils, and of battles won after many setbacks and much suffering. (Adedeji ed.1993:xv)

There have been struggles against SAPs and globalisation in the streets and in lecture halls of Africa. I will only confine myself to intellectual resistance. African scholars have severely critiqued structural adjustment programmes and indicated alternatives. Even African states and bureaucracies have not surrendered without some fight. There have been attempts to provide alternative frameworks and plans and programmes such as the Lagos Plan of Action, (1980); The African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programme for Socio-economic Recovery and Transformation (1989) and the African Charter for Popular Participation and Development (1990).

These alternative frameworks have underlined the need for a holistic approach to Africa’s development; called for a continental programme of regional integration and collective self-reliance; cajoled African states not to surrender their developmental role, and sovereignty in policy-making; and have attempted to develop a vision of a human-centered and people-driven development for the future of the continent. These African initiatives have been invariably dismissed by the erstwhile Bretton Woods institutions and the so-called “development partners”. Wielding the threat of marginalisation and dangling the carrot of aid, the so-called development partners have, persistently and dogmatically, pushed through their own agendas, which invariably prioritize the geo-political and strategic needs of the global hegemons and the voracious appetites of corporate capital for resources and profits.

The African ‘state of art’ on development

I will quickly summarize the new development perspectives that are emerging in the debates of African scholars and intellectuals.

Firstly, African scholars are agreed that there is a clear need to go beyond stabilization fundamentals to developmental fundamentals. While stabilization policies and measures may be necessary, they are not sufficient. They have to be conceived within the larger context of building a self-sustaining economy rather than as short-term shock therapies.

Secondly, approaches and concerns of political economy on state and society have to be brought back in the discourse on development. A critical assessment and appreciation of the developmental discourses of the nationalist period is essential.

Thirdly, the state must reassert its developmental role, not so much as an executive or a regulatory agency, but as an organised force with a vision and an operational programme. It must both protect nascent sources of domestic capital, as well as take account of, and provide for, the basic needs of the population as a whole. The role of the South-East Asian states in this regard, particularly in the development of human capital, is often cited in support.

In sum, the state must play a lead role in the long-term planning so as to place the economy on the developmental path towards an integrated economy.

But, fourthly, the state itself has to be reformed and restructured. The despotic colonial and the authoritarian post-colonial state cannot play a popular developmental role. Its limits have been reached. The reformed state must have its roots in the people and must seek legitimacy from the people. It must seek a new social consensus and build its legitimacy not only on the economic terrain – development -but also on the political and legal terrain of popular participation, freedoms, rights and stable constitutional orders.

Some African intellectuals, not without evidence, have questioned the suitability and viability of the liberal democratic model for Africa.

They have forcefully argued that Africa has to go beyond liberal to social democracy which would address not only the question of formal equality but that of social justice and equity as well.

Formal democracy with multiparty and five-year elections too has come under scrutiny. The experience of the liberalisation of the state over the last couple of decades does not inspire confidence or hope. Popular democracy, grassroots democracy, local democracy, new democracy, etc. are the new concepts being discussed and debated.

Fifthly, African scholars are revisiting the nationalist period and the aborted national project. There is renewed interest in the Pan-Africanist vision. There is no way, it is argued, Africa can truly develop in the face of the threat of marginalisation by the new imperialist assault called globalisation, unless it unites. This time around, Africa has to go beyond regional integration and free trade agreements and work towards political unity, a Federation of African States. The nationalism and national liberation of the globalisation age is Pan-Africanism, it is asserted.

In this respect African intellectuals have severely criticized and exposed the limits of the apparent “African” initiative, the New Economic Partnership for African Development or NEPAD. NEPAD is another form of donor-dependent program seeking more aid and assistance and predicated on further integration in the unequal global structures.

Calling it a ‘feudo-imperial partnership’ Adebayo Adedeji says, the objective of NEPAD is ‘for the African canoe to be firmly tied to the North’s neo-liberal ship on the waters of globalisation’ (Nyong’o et. al. eds, 2002:36).

Sixthly, the debate on the vexed question of agency continues unabated. Is there an African national bourgeoisie capable of leading a genuine capitalist development or do we just have comprador bourgeoisies serving the needs of foreign capital? Is state-centred socialist development, based on popular forces, the only alternative? In any case, is a socialist alternative feasible in the light of the unipolar hegemony of imperialism? Or is it even desirable in the light of the experience of the former Soviet-bloc countries? Or, shall we develop a transitional ‘model’, called ‘new democracy’, based on what Samir Amin calls ‘national popular forces’?

Whatever be the case, progressive and concerned African intellectuals seem to agree that a ‘national or a new democratic revolution’ on a Pan-African scale is on the agenda, both as a form of resistance and as an alternative framework for ‘reconstruction’.

All in all, the development discourse in Africa among African intellectuals is alive, kicking, mentally refreshing and intellectually formidable, notwithstanding declarations of World Bank technicians, called consultants, proclaiming ‘the end of development’. Africans are reclaiming their right to think for themselves.

Issa G. Shivji is Professor of Law, Faculty of Law, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania ( This article first appeared in Pambazuka News, a weekly newsletter for social justice in Africa.


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