Western development has failed | by by Jean-Marc Ela

by Oct 17, 2011Africa

Looking to a new Africa
Economically, Africa is considered a poor and marginalised continent. And since the end of the cold war it has no longer been of any strategic or diplomatic importance to the great powers. Except when there are emergencies requiring humanitarian aid, no-one is really interested in the fate of the continent’s 700 million men and women. Is it the failure of development? Or backwardness? Or is it rather a sign of strength that African societies are refusing to fall into the neo-liberal trap, instead creating alternatives to the Western model of development?
Few studies of the continent leave much room for hope. Again and again we read that Africa is collapsing and turning into “a school for the ills of humanity” (1). The image of a shipwrecked continent, repeated ad nauseam, seems to sum up the perception of Africa – synonymous with poverty, corruption and fraud; the home of violence, conflict and genocide. We are assailed with apocalyptic images of an “impoverished Africa in a spiral of conflict” (2). As the century draws to a close, we are told that “no continent offers such a spectacle of desolation, war and famine as Africa. Slowly, the place is going to the dogs” (3).

The paradigm of bankruptcy has become the context for every analysis of modern Africa’s economic and social history, with the stress on the blind alleys of what is conventionally termed development. As Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch remarks, “we are in a period of cumulative crisis” (4), which she defines both as a crisis in the processes of development in the Southern hemisphere and a crisis of a world where interdependence is fast becoming inescapable. A crisis in the development models and ideologies underlying countries’ policies and structures. A crisis of know-how as the fields of development break up and theory proves to be out of step with poorly analysed reality. Samir Amin evokes the same general picture: “The 1960s were marked by the great hope that we were at the start of an irreversible process of development throughout the third world, and especially Africa. But ours has become the age of disenchantment. Development is at a standstill, its theory is in crisis, its ideology in doubt. It is generally agreed that development in Africa is bankrupt” (5).

And yet, was the decolonisation of the 1960s not to have been the harbinger of progress? Was not the green revolution supposed to put an end to famine? Was it not the aim of the aid organisations to promote “integrated”, “autocentric”, “endogenous”, “participatory”, “community” development? How many destitute regions, now the vast graveyards of projects and programmes costing billions of dollars, have seen streams of “cooperators”, “experts” or “technical assistants”, advice to Africa having become something of an industry?

Pessimism about Africa is standing in the way of any political analysis of the problems of development. It constantly diverts Western opinion by reproducing the stereotypes of colonial ethnology. In these days of all-pervading revisionism, it is no doubt convenient to remove any reference to the structures and effects of domination. But they are with us again, nevertheless, as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank strangle Africa, forcing it to dismantle its production systems and its states (6). Georges Balandier rightly says that “the powerlessness of the third world is maintained by the inequalities and dependence on which those countries base their power and, for the time being, hold on to it” (7).

Unflinching powers of resistance
As if to stifle the debate on the violence caused by the increasing role of money in African societies, barrack-room anthropologists are going back to the old litanies of “cultural obstacles to development”: if the producers of cocoa, coffee, groundnuts, cotton or bananas are so poor, it is because they insist on clinging to their ancestral beliefs; while the urban managerial classes go on submitting to community pressures which, through kinship obligations, stop them making any savings or productive investments. More crudely, some go back to the climate theory to explain Africa’s “backwardness” or “helplessness”. Others, with the spectre of Malthus haunting international financial institutions, go so far as to blame the poor themselves for having too many children, making women and families the targets of population policy. By taking account of the interaction between population, development and the environment, the neo-liberal debate on the African economic crisis also resorts to the “regressive spiral” theory of poverty, which links population growth to environmental degradation.

These theorists prefer to forget that in Ivory Coast, for example, the ascendancy of the plantation economy has caused the destruction of four-fifths of the country’s forests in 50 years. Moreover, by maintaining the illusion of the “fatalism” of black farmers and the “traditionalism” of their societies, said to be engaged in a constant struggle to preserve their cultural forms, they have no need to consider the creative potential of a people confronted by structural constraints that oblige them to redefine themselves. Like parrots captured in virgin forests, some Africans reproduce their masters’ voices: “21st century Africa will be rational or it will not be at all,” Axelle Kabou repeats in a provocative book (8). The irrational attitudes and behaviour patterns of indigenous societies are well known as part of a corpus of images and ideas conveyed by colonial literature, which has long disregarded the skills of the local population.

Of course, responsibility for the continent’s ills cannot be placed at the door of external factors alone: Africa is also “sick of itself”. One need only mention the organised plundering by the ruling classes who, as in Cameroon, for example, actually make corruption a method of government. Or the practices whereby the state redistributes resources to its supporters using predatory methods that have brought many African countries to ruin, among them, of course, Mobutu’s Zaire. And there is no hiding the power of the mafia-like networks and sundry lobbies that control strategic resources and uphold corrupt dictatorships.

Most of the wars and conflicts that have ceaselessly impoverished Africa can only be understood in the context of the geopolitical stakes and strategic economic resources fought over by powerful interest groups: oil, uranium, copper, diamonds, cobalt, gold or aluminium (9). Such take-overs and interventions are the stock in trade of socio-political systems where the ruling classes manipulate ethnicity as part of their strategy of conquest or seizing power. One need only look at the political economy of Africa’s mineral resources, now caught up in the conflictual dynamics of globalisation. In the same way, the continent’s pauperisation is inseparable from the criminalisation of the state and the economy at a time when the IMF and World Bank are using debt as a weapon to weaken the state and force Africans to embrace the religion of the market.

In this light, what is conventionally called the “bankruptcy of development” also reveals African societies’ unflinching powers of resistance. They are refusing to bear the costs of the strategies and programmes that have failed to pull them out of the morass into which the austerity measures dictated by the international financial institutions are forcing them. An in-depth analysis of the present situation requires an overall reappraisal of the refusal to question the conditions for entering the modern economic world. The African crisis inevitably brings us back to the crisis of know-how surrounding the importing of “outside dynamics”. Since the end of the second world war, notes Georges Balandier, “the third world countries’ own theories of development have been first of all modelled on external theories: those formed and tested in so-called advanced societies and which are now being called into question” (10). Those theories were developed from a pattern of social change peculiar to the specific paths taken by Western societies that claim a monopoly on modernity. It is a point of view that says that African societies can only reproduce the model of the societies that are trying to modernise them. In order to “succeed”, they have not been asked to innovate using their own internal dynamics or to steer change in line with their own frames of reference.

If development is a “Western belief” (11), its bankruptcy also spells the bankruptcy of capitalism in sub-Saharan Africa. In African societies, the truly poor person is the one who has no kindred: the family spirit and the principle of reciprocity underpin economic ties within the mesh of social relationships. Given the weight of this social and cultural framework, Africans tend to distance themselves from a development model in which socio-economic inequalities are considered one of the real engines of progress. They question an economic modernisation that involves the destruction of social ties. Few Africans are inclined to take on an alienating modernity that seeks to bring in a way of being and behaving centred on the individualism so typical of the modern West.

In Africa’s villages and neighbourhoods where there is so much decay, anonymous players are however demonstrating the inventiveness of these societies and their ability to innovate in the face of the mechanisms of impoverishment. The failure of a single development model must not be allowed to hide the new dynamism that has appeared in many African countries since the 1970s: rural communities organising themselves; experiments in local development and collective advancement; social movements in urban areas; local enterprises triggering bursts of industrialisation; people finding their own voice, creating a private press, engaging in constructive criticism, defending their societies against the state; the birth and spread of communities of researchers, scientists, thinkers, writers and artists of international repute.
The scope of these changes means we must take a fresh look at the real economy in these societies. Conventional schemes of analysis are inappropriate where, for example, economic players who can neither read nor write Western languages are moving to the centre of the mechanisms for accumulating resources, as evidenced by the big Hausa and Yoruba traders in Nigeria or the famous Nana Benz of Lomé, Cotonou, Kinshasa or Douala. We are familiar with the dynamism of the women who invest hugely in flourishing informal enterprises in African villages and the impact this has on family structures.

The capacity for innovation, reinvention of traditions and resurgence of native skills are these societies’ responses to the tightening of structural constraints and the demands of unbridled capitalism. More than just a means of “getting by”, these popular practices are the concrete manifestations of a society and economy rooted in local culture. Friendly societies or “tontines” form a “total services” system where people can exchange not only “money and work, but also meals, rites, especially mourning, friendship obligations and advice” (12). Access to economic modernity is not therefore incompatible with the forging of links between money and kinship.

In fact, the rebirth of associations in sub-Saharan Africa is resulting in experiments in cooperative development. In a situation where programmes drawn up by experts are based on supposedly scientific assumptions affirming the universality of the category homo economicus as opposed to homo africanus, these experiments must be seen as a genuine alternative to the building of a new barbarian economy on the ruins of society. The forms of creativity that are spreading on the margins of the dominant system by means of a kind of “intelligence of cunning” are a means of subverting the Western system of development. Africans, possessed of an imagination far removed from the Washington consensus, are thus organising a break with the logic of violence and exclusion inherent in the ethos that the West is seeking to impose on the whole of the planet. Their many-sided tactics and strategies, “deviant” forms of behaviour, are a sign of the vitality and renaissance of African societies and cultures. These grass-roots practices without a doubt make Africa the continent that is best resisting the levelling that is going on in the world.

Africa is not against development. It dreams of other things than the expansion of a culture of death or an alienating modernity that destroys the fundamental values so dear to Africans. At the same time Africa wants to be party to all the developments of the approaching end of century. Which will make it the continent of the future (13). Africa sees further than an all-embracing world of material things and the dictatorship of the here and now, that insists on trying to persuade us that the only valid motto is “I sell, therefore I am”. In a world often devoid of meaning, Africa is a reminder that there are other ways of being.

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