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African narratives of development and the consequences of marketisation

In a comprehensive review of the latest global capitalist crisis and its consequences for African populations, Patricia Daley explores how greed has continued to hinder African educational opportunities and the realisation of a Walter Rodney-esque development rooted in personal freedom, well-being and security. With the hegemonic narratives of the West failing to improve the lot of the majority, Africans must return to creating their own narratives of development, central to which will prove the more effective use of technological change and the access to information offered by media outlets such as Pambazuka News.

Over 35 years ago, the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, in his widely-acclaimed book, How Europe underdeveloped Africa, defined development in human society as a ‘many sided process’:

‘At the level of the individual, it implies increased skill and capacity, greater freedom, creativity, self-discipline, responsibility and material well-being … the achievements of these aspects of personal development is tied in with the state of the society as a whole’. (1)

Rodney contends that the ability of individuals to achieve personal development is dependent on ‘the relationship between individuals in a social group, [which] within any two societies is regulated by the form of the two societies’, and which are dependent on ‘the coming together of the societies in the struggle against natural hazards and to protect their freedom; on this basis humans developed tools and organized their labour to enable social development’. Therefore, ‘every people have shown a capacity for independently increasing their ability to live a more satisfactory life through the exploiting the resources of nature.’ (2)

Rodney then goes on to consider how the capacity of the people of Africa to develop themselves had been constrained by their interaction with Europe during slavery and colonialism. The ability of Africans to recapture that freedom to define their future and to develop is a problem that is of concern today, especially at this critical juncture in the history of global capitalism. During the last ten years, Pambazuka News has played a pivotal role in freeing up those voices of the people and of friends of Africa that are campaigning for political, economic and social justice in order to enhance the lives of Africans on the continent. The global economic crisis of 2008 has shown the necessity for a consistent voice against economic exploitation and political domination. Growth, but not at all cost.

This paper will now focus on two events that shaped the last decade, that have hindered the delivery of social justice and that have ramifications for the realisation of a Rodney-esque development in post-colonial Africa, unless progressive forces can provide meaningful alternatives.

The first event took place in the late 1990s with the reconfiguration of the rhetoric of neoliberalism in Africa under the banner of Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy (PRGS) papers. Critics of structural adjustment were temporarily silenced as the International Financial Institutions pushed through market-oriented policies that had the appearance of being more people friendly, yet the reality could not be hidden. These were, among others: the continued impoverishment of the masses, while a small political and business elite amassed considerable wealth; the death of millions of civilians in futile wars, as weapons became easily available on the global market; peace deals that were concerned more about reconstructing the conditions for extraction than securing the conditions of life for African people; corrupt Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) contracts that see billions of dollars leave the continent, whilst African women and children are excepted to dance for a few millions given in aid and; NGOs claiming that they are bringing development whilst depriving people of the capacity to make their world according to their own choosing.

The second event that changed the politico-economic landscape of the globe was the attack on the World Trade building in New York on 11 September 2001 that claimed the lives of 3,000 people, mostly Americans, and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ that ensued when the American response brought war and insecurity to millions around the globe. A disproportionate number of innocent lives have been lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia; others have seen their civil liberties and their relationship with their states being redefined as many states, under pressure from the US, have sought to introduce identity cards without the approval of their citizens.

As David Harvey has shown in his book, The New Imperialism, the war in Iraq, which arose from no visible threat by Iraq to the United States, was a response by American capitalists to the impending crisis in the American economy. Washington Post journalist, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, also documents how billion dollar contracts were given out to supporters of the Republican Party. Iraq provided the means for the enrichment of a few while the people died for lack of medicine outside the gated community of the Green Zone. Military excursions to accumulate by dispossession became fashionable again in the 21st century. It is also revealing that during this economic climate the US government announced the readiness of their Africa command, designed to protect America’s interest in Africa, but presented as providing a rapid response to humanitarian crises.

Elite greed has been banded about as one of the reasons for Africa’s continued impoverishment. However, the link between global capitalism and African elites is rarely made today, especially as neo-Marxian analyses of the ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ are seen as old-fashioned and outdated. Yet, understanding those links is critical to any explanation of widening social inequalities in contemporary Africa.

Greed and indifference to poverty have long characterised the capitalist world, in which social inequalities are inevitable and widely acceptable. Engels wrote, in his History of the Working Class in England, about the dreadful living conditions of the poor in the English city of Manchester. This text was published in 1847, almost 100 years before the welfare system was introduced. To appease the conscience of the wealthy, the poor were characterised as less than human, and in many parts of the world, especially during the colonial era, non-whites filled this role. Moving forward to the late twentieth century, one could argue that there must have been a deficit in the social conscience and ethics of proponents of economic policies that impoverished millions of Africans, whilst they enriched themselves as expert consultants. These policies arise from what I in 2008 have termed ‘genocidal economics’ or ‘the forms of economic engagement that require the physical elimination of competition. This type of economics comes from a form of competition for resources which is militarized, racialized and linked to the characterization of economic opponents as vermin’ (3).

Genocidal economics is heightened by conditions of capitalist crisis. The elements of this kind of economics were best expressed in Germany of the 1940s. Genocidal economics and its variant of market fundamentalism brings to the fore what David Harvey (2000) calls the ‘amoral order of capitalist power’.

This view of the rapaciousness of capitalism was expressed recently by a lecturer at a London business school. Dr Stefano Harney contends:

‘The best business schools should be questioning themselves as to what part they might be playing in the current (financial) crisis. The business schools did very, very little to educate and challenge the so-called culture of greed and of bonuses that seem to have dominated the City ... We have failed to teach our students the kind of social conscience and ethics and concern for the world and the environment and the poor that might have had an effect on the selfish exuberance of the finance markets.’ (4)

Over-extended profit seekers in the unregulated American economy are the architects of the latest crisis in capitalism. In Africa, under free-market capitalism, asset stripping, user fees and corrupt FDI contracts have contributed to the impoverishment of poor communities, yet the mantra of poverty reduction is given as an unchallengeable justification. The other emergent mantra of the decade was ‘post-conflict reconstruction.’ Governments, NGOs and private contractors use this smokescreen to secure new means of accumulation, while claiming to bring peace and stability. So it is not surprising that the economist, Paul Collier, in his book The Bottom Billion, calls for military intervention to stabilize African economies. Rather than de-militarise African economies, peace-keeping and post-conflict reconstruction have led to a greater militarisation of the continent as weapons have become widely available. The setting up of the US military command for Africa, Africom, and its European variants signals new vulnerabilities in Africa, and choppy waters ahead for those who challenge America’s hegemony. We should not forget that the imperialist scramble for Africa was preceded by the economic crisis of the 1870s and, a hundred years later, structural adjustment programmes followed the crisis of accumulation in the 1970s. Africa may appear to be unscathed by this current crisis, but it is bound to feel the repercussions.

So what opportunities are there for campaigners of social justice?

Firstly, regulation is the order of the day, and Africa governments should act quickly to protect the most vulnerable poor, in the same way that America and Europe have sought to protect the vulnerable rich. With its nationalisation of the banks Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the $700bn bailout of other banks the US will become more regulated than any socialist country. Britain has also nationalised two banks and has insured deposits of up to £50,000 in British Banks. These actions run counter to the advice forced on African countries undergoing crisis. We should, therefore, increase the pressure on African governments and regional organisations to adopt more socially just and people-centred policies. They should resist the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ policies that have characterised western governments’ and IFIs’ polices for the continent. Africans should oppose asset-stripping FDI contracts, land-grabbing, and expose the PRGS for what they are, an elite-centred, wealth accumulation strategy.

A Rodney-esque development envisages individuals as fulfilling their potential within a social group that cares about their well-being and security. The freedom to think and to grow into one’s person can occur through opportunities of education and the acknowledgement of your worth as a human-being. Over the past two decades, the denial of educational opportunities to Africans, enforced by Africans who themselves benefited from free education will have repercussions that will stunt the growth of the society. One should not forget that at the geographical core of neoliberal ideas marketisation was contested and not pushed to the extreme because of concerns over the deprivation of large sectors of society. In Britain, people are still fighting to retain free state-funded education for all, a national health care system and cash welfare benefits.

At another level, the denial of rights and freedoms because of gender remains a major constraint on the realisation of development potential. At the regional level, the African Union has made great strides towards introducing legislation aimed at improving the position of women in society. These have now to be realised on the ground and have to be fought for. The manifestation of sexual violence against women and girls in post-conflict or economically deteriorating settings signals not just the persistence of the de-humanising tendencies of war, but also a reconstruction and development programme that saps communities of responsibility, creativity and the valorisation of life.

Finally, Africans have to return to creating their own narratives of development. The hegemonic narratives of the West have failed to improve the lot of the majority. As Charles Ake (1996) notes: ‘The idea that a people or their culture and social institutions can be an obstacle to their development is one of [the] most expensive errors [of the development project].’ (5) Technological developments such as the internet and mobile phones as media for social change have yet to be fully exploited. Pambazuka News has helped to push the boundaries of information, to force us to think critically about that which we were told were above criticism. Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain and one of marketisation’s main proponents once said: ‘There is no such thing as society’. She has been proven wrong. The issue now is what kind of society we need to enable each and every one of us to fulfil our potential. Pambazuka News can continue in its important role of providing the forum for debates over such questions.


(1) Rodney, How Europe underdeveloped Africa, p.110.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Daley, Gender and genocide in Burundi, p.9.

(4) Harney quoted in Corbyn (2008) ‘Did Poor Teaching lead to the Crash?’, THES.

(5) Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa, p.8.


Ake, Claude (1996) Democracy and Development in Africa, Brookings Institution Press.

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv (2008) Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Bhagdad’s green zone, Bloomsbury Pub PLC.

Collier, Paul (2007) The Bottom Billion: why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it. Oxford: OUP.

Daley, Patricia (2008) Gender and genocide in Burundi: The Search for Spaces of Peace in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Oxford: James Currey; Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Engels, F. (1847) The History of the Working Class in England.

Harvey, David (2000) ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Banality of Geographical Evils’, Public Culture, 12 (2) 529-564.

Harvey, David (2006) The New Imperialism, Oxford: OUP.

Rodney, Walter (1972) How Europe underdeveloped Africa.

Harney, Stefano quoted in Zoe Corbyn (2008) ‘Did Poor Teaching lead to the Crash?’, Times Higher Education Supplement, London, 25 September 2008.

* Dr Patricia Daley is a university lecturer in Human Geography, and an official fellow and geography tutor at Jesus College, the University of Oxford.

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at