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
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.

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
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

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
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

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
and dwell on metaphysical abstraction of development.

and References

[1] http://www.wango.org/about.aspx

[2] http://www.healthpovertyaction.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/07/Honest-Accounts-report-v4-web.pdf

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