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Understanding Africa’s underdevelopment

Here we examine the impact of the relationship between Africa and the West in the underdevelopment of the former. It is incomprehensible that Africa a continent endowed with natural resources will be home to some of the poorest communities in the globe.

If there is anything holding down Africans at the moment it is not empty pockets but poverty of minds. It is argued here that for Africa to develop, structural inequalities in the relationship between Africa and the West need to be addressed.

Development must not be a phenomenon happening to Africans but a process over which African citizens have legitimate control. Western sponsored social, economic and political ideals are not the silver bullet that will drive Africans’ development.

READ MORE: Africa a developing or decaying world?

No society, not even the West, can claim exclusive wisdom to solutions to all of the global socioeconomic and political problems. The flattening and shrinking economies in the West are testimony of the fallibility of Western models as much as it puts to question African leadership’s wisdom in persisting with Western development models. Seeking Western development advice should not be the default plan for Africans; the West does not own a smart gadget that squirts development at a touch.

The very idea that Africa needs to be socially, politically and economically molested by the West for her to develop is active ignorance that continues to blight African development. Sustained African development will only occur when development models are informed by Africa and Africans’ experiences. Unfortunately, African development planners and advisors are products of an education system with a Western bias; most are blind converts of Western development ideals. Their development underpinning is drawn from Western literature written exclusively from a Western perspective.

While the content of the education is not necessarily of itself always a problem, the failure to adapt that knowledge to local needs is. African development designers just like their Western advisors are guilty of paying little or no attention to local socioeconomic variables that give Africa its distinct characteristics.

Development diagnoses and planning cannot be separated from the wider socioeconomic and political factors; most of the Western sponsored policies are not compatible with complex African social, economic, cultural, political and environmental dynamics. African development as construed today runs parallel to mainstream society; it creates a dual society: one that is wilfully or grudgingly amenable to Western values and the other that neither understands nor identifies with (or simply rejects) Western moral values. A classic example is the Republic of South Africa’s constitutional provision of rights for same sex relationships yet gays/ lesbians on South African streets are as ‘safe’ as gays/ lesbians in Zimbabwe where the head of state thinks they are ‘worse than pigs’.

We are advised that Africa’s economic growth is dependent on its integration into the global markets. To that end, governments are encouraged to open their economies; any degree of protectionism is frowned upon as that hampers vital investment flows into Africa. African economies are thus structurally outward looking geared towards export and subsequently exposed to volatile global markets. Are global markets ready to embrace Africa as an equal partner when evidence suggests that total foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows to Africa has been declining since 2009?

Furthermore, Western protectionism affects the profitability of African exports which negatively impacts trade in higher value manufactures and thus limits African trade mainly to raw materials. Without a doubt Africa does need trade in order to fund its development projects but people should not be overly obsessed with the idea of exports to Europe. Europe is not necessarily the golden pot at the end of the rainbow; boosting trade between African states is just as essential and so is increased local consumption. China’s and India’s economic successes have been on the backdrop of the increasing local consumption driven by a burgeoning middle class in addition to exports.

African governments need to stop the ill-conceived intra-continental economic wars which amount to states scrambling to place their heads on the Western economic noose. African governments and business tend to undercut each other to gain access to Western markets when the sensible alternative is to organise and mobilise regional asserts and interests to better face the organised Western-dominated global systems.

Operational efficiency can be achieved by forging regional partnerships in an array of socioeconomic activities including infrastructural development. An equivalent of the Western Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can be formed to harness resources, expertise, improve quality and volume of products and provide real competition for multinationals.

It seems patently wrong that the West wants to be both the player and referee in its socioeconomic and political interaction with Africa. Western institutions cannot be expected to be both gatekeepers for Western interests and be impartial referees in the transactions between Africa and the West. The African political elite and development planners must not confuse meeting Western sponsored development targets with meeting Africans’ needs. Development is more than the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP); it means adding value to the lives of all Africa citizens. This article seeks not to denounce Western development models or the use thereof in Africa but the reference point of African development need not be Europe, it has to be Africa itself. Complex African socioeconomic, cultural and political interactions need to be fully explored and understood before viable development models can be drawn or adapted.


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