Home » Africa » The Failure of the European-Style State and “Development” in Africa

The Failure of the European-Style State and “Development” in Africa

“We had escaped a place where evil stared right at you from the sockets of a child’s skull on a battlefield, only to arrive in London, where office workers led lives of such tedium and plenty that they had to entertain themselves with all the fucking and killing on the big screen. So, here then was the prosperous, democratic and civilized Western world. A place of washing machines, reality TV, Armani, frequent-flier miles, mortgages. And this is what the Africans are supposed to hope for, if they’re lucky.”

– Aidan Hartley, The Zanzibar Chest

“The ideal of a single civilization for everyone implicit in the cult of progress and technique impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life.”

– Octavio Paz

“Genocide, the physical extermination of a people, is universally condemned. Ethnocide, the destruction of a people’s way of life, is in many quarters sanctioned and endorsed as appropriate development policy. Modernity provides the rationale for disenfranchisement”

– Wade Davis

After spending about eight months in East Africa, I became somewhat of an Afropessimist, as taboo as that has now become. I felt misled by the “Africa Rising” media narrative. When I left Ethiopia, I couldn’t shake a deep feeling of disillusion and sadness at the state of the continent. Between news reports of impending doom in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, I read depressing but accurate passages from a recent history of the continent since independence, The Fate of Africa by journalist turned historian Martin Meredith.

“In reality, fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are as bleak as ever. Already the world’s poorest region, it is falling further and further behind all other regions of the world. Its average per capita national income is one-third lower than the world’s next poorest region, South Asia. With a population rising to more than 1 billion, real per capita income is now lower than in the 1970s. Today, half of the population lives on less than US$1 a day. Poverty levels in Africa continue to increase. Between 1981 and 2002 the number of people living in poverty nearly doubled […] A 2010 report showed that while food production on a global basis had risen by nearly 150 per cent during the previous forty years, African food production since 1960 had fallen by 10 per cent; and the number of undernourished Africans since 1990 had risen by 100 million to 250 million. Other indicators are no more encouraging. Africa is the only region where school enrolment is falling and where illiteracy is commonplace: about half of all children in sub-Saharan Africa fail to complete primary education. It is also the only region where life expectancy is falling, mainly due to the spread of HIV/Aids […] On a list drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme, all twenty-five countries that rank lowest in terms of human development are African. Africa has also found itself on the losing side of globalisation, lacking both skills and infrastructure to attract the multinational corporations that drive it. Africa’s rapid population growth – at an average of 2.5 per cent a year – compounds the difficulties African governments face.”

I longed to have seen Africa in the heady days of independence, during that “brief but memorable” honeymoon when it appeared that the first generation of post-independence African leaders – Nkrumah, Nyerere, Banda, Senghor, Houphoeut-Boigny, Toure, Keita, Olympio, Kaunda – would make their continent blossom. They perhaps naively believed that political independence would lead to prosperity and flourishing. “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added unto you,” said the great intellectual Nkrumah. “We shall achieve in a decade what it took others a century,” and create “a veritable paradise,” he boasted.

The writer Paul Theroux lived and worked in Malawi and Uganda during the 1960s. He recalls his time there whimsically:

“[…] folks lived their lives on bush paths at the ends of unpaved roads of red clay, in villages of grass-roofed huts. They had a new national flag to replace the Union Jack, they had just gotten the vote, some had bikes, many talked about buying their first pair of shoes. They were hopeful and so was I.”

Independence came during an economic boom, when prices for African commodities like cocoa, coffee, and copper were high. Sub Saharan economies grew by four to six per cent annually from 1945 to 1960, and Western governments injected heaps of aid. Even the rainfalls were good during this time, as if someone had paid homage to all the right gods. Local music, art, and literature thrived. Sadly, this short golden age was not to last, and everything came crashing down.

Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński wrote about the broken promises following the short-lived elation of this era:

“It was characterized by a universal optimism, enthusiasm, euphoria. People were convinced that freedom meant a better roof over their heads, a larger bowl of rice, a first pair of shoes. A miracle would take place – the multiplying of loaves, fishes, and wine. Nothing of the sort occurred. On the contrary. There was a sudden increase in the population, for which there was not enough food, schools, or jobs. Optimism quickly turned to disenchantment and pessimism. The people’s bitterness, fury, hatred was now directed against their own elites, who were rapidly and greedily stuffing their pockets. In a country without a well-developed private sector, where plantations belonged to foreigners and the banks to foreign capital, the political career was the only road to riches.

In short – the poverty and disillusion of those on the bottom rungs, coupled with the cupidity and gluttony of those on the top, create a poisoned, unstable atmosphere, which the army senses; presenting itself as the champion of the injured and the humiliated, it emerges from the barracks and reaches for power.”

Nearly all of the new African leaders, even Nkrumah and Nyerere, ended up as corrupt despots blinded by their own cults of personality. Meredith writes that “In one country after another, African leaders acted in contempt of constitutional rules and agreements they had sworn to uphold to enhance their own power.”

The Saint Lucian economist Arthur Lewis expounded on the despotism that had infected so many African governments: “Men who claim to be democrats in fact behave like emperors. Personifying the state, they dress themselves up in uniforms, build themselves palaces, bring all other traffic to a standstill when they drive, hold fancy parades and generally demand to be treated like Egyptian Pharaohs.”

Ghanaian economist George B. N. Ayittey writes that “Criticizing [post-independence African leaders] became sacrilegious and, very quickly, the freedom and development promised by Nkrumah and other African nationalists transmogrified into a melodramatic nightmare. In many countries these nationalist leaders soon turned out to be crocodile liberators, Swiss bank socialists, quack revolutionaries, and grasping kleptocrats.”

More than half of state budgets were spent on civil service salaries in a plethora of countries. The new leaders ruled by “vast systems of patronage” wherein tribal affiliations and loyalty mattered more than competence or professionalism. Tiny elites composing no more than three per cent of the population, such as the so-called WaBenzi in East Africa, came to control nearly all of the wealth. Governments wasted billions on extravagant and impractical “prestige projects” meant to impress their own people and foreign countries, but having little pragmatic value. Vast numbers of educated Africans fled the continent, leaving behind an untrained populace to run things. Civil servant salaries drastically decreased, taking away all incentive for professionalism and honesty. “Bereft of expertise, African civil servants became renowned for pervasive absenteeism, endemic corruption and low morale, incapable of performing basic tasks,” writes Meredith.

What followed the first round of leaders was even worse: the murderous tyrants, plagued by xenophobia, paranoia, inferiority complexes, and hatred of erudition. The racist Abeid Karume in Zanzibar horribly mistreated the Arab and Asian populations. The ridiculous Jean-Bédel Bokassa in Central African Republic fed his victims to crocodiles, lions, and – allegedly – himself. The brute Idi Amin, another alleged cannibal, filled the Ugandan Nile with many of his 250,000 victims. The goon Masi Nguema wasn’t satisfied to merely torture and murder virtually every educated person in tiny Equatorial Guinea; he even had the word “intellectual” banned. The puppet master Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia coerced rival student groups into murdering each other on the streets.

In the twenty years following independence, there were about 40 successful coups, and countless attempted ones. In 1978, Edem Kodjo, Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity lamented, “Our ancient continent is now on the brink of disaster, hurtling towards the abyss of confrontation, caught in the grip of violence, sinking into the dark night of bloodshed and death.”

The 1970s were a living nightmare, but the following decade was no better. They called the 1980s “the lost decade.” Development experts had to invent new categories just for Africa, as the rest of the developing world sprinted past it. Most Africans were as poor or poorer than they had been at the time of independence. By the end of the decade, no African head of state had allowed himself to be voted out of power in three decades, and only six of 150 had voluntarily given up power. Opposition parties were illegal in most countries. From 1961 to 1995, per capital food production dropped by 12 per cent. Only Botswana, Senegal, and Gambia managed to hold regular and fair elections. In the 1990s, popular discontent was finally voiced by brave young students in the streets, and meaningful elections finally occurred, but people voted mostly along ethnic and tribal lines.

And now? Paul Theroux revisited Africa recently, and wrote a book about it. “One of the epiphanies of my trip was the realization that where the mode of life had changed significantly in the Africa I had known, it had changed for the worse,” he wrote.

“Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it – hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch doctors. Africans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most lied-to people on earth – manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. To be an African leader was to be a thief, but evangelists stole people’s innocence, and self-serving aid agencies gave them false hope, which seemed worse.”

As a recent article in the New York Times points out, current growth rates of just under four per cent in Africa “are virtually meaningless for the growing ranks of Africans living in extreme poverty,” because “There is little connection between high growth rates and reductions in inequality.” There has been virtually no change in “lived poverty” rates across the continent in the past decade. Sixty-one per cent of Africans still live on less than $2 a day. The commodities boom results in few jobs, and inequality is actually going up as countries increase resource extraction. Half the population struggles to meet basic needs like food, clear water, and medicine. AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria still wreak havoc across the continent.

The benefits of foreign aid are controversial to say the least. Organizations such as the IMF and World Bank often do far more harm than good, mostly benefiting Western countries. These same countries protect their own farmers with subsidies (equal to about $1 billion per day) and tariffs that cripple African producers. Writes Meredith, “Western surpluses produced at a fraction of their real cost are then dumped on African markets, undermining domestic producers. Simultaneously, African products face tariff barriers imposed by industrialised countries, effectively shutting them out of Western markets.” The Chinese are no better, Meredith writes, and have been accused “of worsening the level of corruption, of violating labour laws, damaging the environment and flooding markets with cheap products that ruin local industries.”

Meredith concludes that the continent’s fundamental problem, unsurprisingly, is the lack of effective governance.

“The same blight afflicts most of Africa. Time and again, its potential for economic development has been disrupted by the predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain, often precipitating violence for their own ends. ‘The problem is not so much that development has failed,’ observed the Nigerian academic, Claude Ake, in his essay Democracy and Development in Africa, ‘as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place.’ After decades of mismanagement and corruption, most African states have become hollowed out. They are no longer instruments capable of serving the public good. Indeed, far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens, African governments and the vampire-like politicians who run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival.”

* * *

Such a sad state of affairs occurred in the continent that gave birth to the human race and populated the entire planet. A continent that’s produced magnificent kingdoms – Aksum in the northeast, Asante in the west, Zulu in the south, and many others. Countless artefacts from these ancient civilizations and cultures still remain – bronzes from the Benin Empire in Nigeria; Aksumite obelisks in Ethiopia; the libraries of Timbuktu in Mali; the stone fortresses of Great Zimbabwe; the ancient rock art of the San in South Africa. When Paris and London were nothing more than small medieval towns, Timbuktu was a city of 100,000, with 150 schools and universities training 25,000 students of astronomy mathematics, medicine, botany, philosophy, and religion.

Sub Saharan Africa, representing 20 per cent of the world’s land and fifteen per cent of its people, hosts a largely harsh, variable climate. Rainfall in half the continent is usually inadequate. Soils are thin and low in nutrients. Endemic diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and river blindness prevent land cultivation. Rivers, interspersed with rapids, are often unnavigable.

Africa’s current states were artificially created with arbitrary borders, thirty per cent of which were simply drawn with a ruler as straight lines. These borders cut through about 190 cultures, and often put historically antagonistic groups into the same colony. Under colonialism, ten thousand polities with 110 million Africans were ultimately crammed into 40 colonies. Nigeria ended up with 250 ethnolinguistic groups. The Democratic Republic of Congo had 6,000 chiefdoms. As Meredith writes, “They possessed no ethnic, class or ideological cement to hold them together, no strong historical and social identities upon which to build.” A tiny number of colonial administrators ruled over millions of subjects. Single officials ruled over vast swathes of land, simultaneously functioning as police chief, tax collector, and judge.

Authoritarianism, patronage, and dirigisme were inherited from colonialism. Xenophobic, virulent nationalism developed as a result of historical mistreatment and as a tool to hold together weak artificial states. Colonial economies shifted food crops to cash crops, contributing greatly to hunger in Africa during the twentieth century. The slave trades (which, in places such as Ethiopia and Nigeria lasted well into the twentieth century), aside from generating racist beliefs against Africans that were previously unknown (Ethiopians, for example, were viewed with awe and wonder by the Ancient Greeks, and the revered Ancient Egyptians may have themselves been black), led to the development of systems of patronage and the de-legitimization of political leaders who either assisted the slavers or were unable to stop them.

But perhaps the most potent venom left behind by the colonialists was the destruction of Africa’s faith in its own indigenous cultures and practices, and the development of a pervasive inferiority complex. Writes George Ayittey, “Unfortunately, the all-consuming passion to change the label of “inferiority” blinds many black leaders and incapacitates them in the search for solutions to mundane black problems.”

Kapuściński also wrote about the pernicious effects of slavery on the continent:

“The slave traders (mainly the Portuguese, the Dutch, English, French, Americans, Arabs, and their African partners) depopulated the continent and condemned it to a vegetative apathy: up to the present day, large stretches remain desolate, transformed into desert. To this day Africa has not recovered from this misfortune, from this nightmare. The slave trade also had disastrous psychological consequences. It poisoned interpersonal relations among Africa’s inhabitants, propagated hatred, inflamed wars. The strong would try to overpower the weak and sell them in the marketplace, kings traded their subjects, conquerors their prisoners, courts of law those they had condemned. On the psyche of the African this trade left the deepest and most painfully permanent scar: the inferiority complex. I, a black man or woman: i.e., the one whom the white merchant, occupier, torturer can abduct from house or field, put in irons, herd aboard ship, sell, then drive with a whip to ghastly toil.”

The great Africanist historian Basil Davidson opined in the early 1990s that post-colonial Africa was suffering “a deeper trouble than the worst imposed during the colonial years,” and he wrote that before the Rwandan genocide, wars in Somalia and Congo, ethnic cleansing in Darfur, and many other tragic events. Davidson proposed that the root of all of modern Africa’s problems was the European style nation-state, mostly adapted from the British or French models.

Kapuściński described the almost immediate malfeasance inherited from the colonial state.

“The colonial origins of the African state – a state wherein the civil servant received remuneration beyond all measure and reason – ensured that in independent Africa, the struggle for power instantly assumed an extremely fierce and ruthless character. All at once, in the blink of an eye, a new ruling class arises – a bureaucratic bourgeoisie that creates nothing, produces nothing, but merely governs the society and reaps the benefits.”

“Why,” Davidson asked, “adopt models from those very countries or systems that have oppressed and despised you? Why not modernize from the models of your own history, or invent new models?” Yet that was the last thing that most foreign “development experts,” who either knew or cared nothing for pre-colonial history, wanted. Instead they portrayed indigenous customs as backwards and Western systems as modern.

“Learned scholarly foundations, great international banking agencies, a host of specialized institutes devoted to “aid for Africa,” have all abounded in versions of the same nonsense: a successful nation-statism in Africa must dispense with, or better still ignore, every experience of the past. Tradition in Africa must be seen as synonymous with stagnation.”

Davidson wrote that the post-colonial state was even more harmful than the colonial state. “[I]ts gross effect was constricting and exploitative, or else it simply failed to operate in any social sense at all. Its overall consequences were in any case disastrous.”

While the modern state holds little legitimacy in the eyes of most Africans, pre-colonial African states, many of which had a king and council, a police force and army, and a national language and law, were seen as legitimate. “[I]n tremendous contrast with times during and after colonialism […] these communities achieved an accountability of rulers to ruled and, quite persistently, the other way around as well,” Davidson wrote. Africa’s own local institutions and cultures, which colonialists effectively destroyed, “had taught how to provide forms of public control over executives, forms of public comment against executives, forms of public distrust of executives – in short, forms of democratic behavior.”

So what is the solution to Africa’s problems? “Development,” of course.

Westernization as “Development”

I make no effort to hide my revulsion of westernization, for it stems from my love of culture. Westernization and globalization often result in what anthropologist Wade Davis calls ‘ethnocide,’ bringing with them “a firestorm of change that has swept away languages and cultures, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”

I remember attending a Rwandan graduation ceremony in Kigali when I was there in 2012. At one point a choir began to sing in some of the most horrific English I’ve ever heard, and I was sure my ears would start to bleed. But then they sang in Kinyarwanda, a lovely language, and I suddenly realized they were quite talented singers. I had to ask myself, why did they feel the need to sing in English? I was the only foreigner present, and it certainly wasn’t for my benefit.

I also recall once asking Ethiopian colleagues why nearly all the luxury hotels in Addis have English names (often blatantly stolen from already existing Western hotels). The response was that Ethiopians wouldn’t “trust” a hotel with an Amharic name. There’s a sad, misplaced belief that if it’s in English, it must be good. Even in tiny villages where no one speaks English, many of the shops have Anglo signs, often misspelled.

A Humourous critique of Western-style development from Survival International

The prevailing view of development seems to be that Africa must “beat the West at its own game” – to urbanize, neoliberalize, and globalize as fast as possible. It must exploit its natural habitat through tourism and resource extraction. It must build consumerist playgrounds for a tiny corrupt elite – sprawling cities festering with giant, nauseating shopping malls, luxury restaurants and hotels – and endless ghettos overflowing with the urban poor, who are needed to build the cities and serve the rich. Dubai is often held up as some kind of sick ideal.

Whenever I meet Western aid workers, I’m reminded of the 1984 film Out of Africa, loosely based on Karen Blixen’s autobiography. Though often silly and orientalist, the movie contains one scene that offers a fascinating critique of Westerners trying to “help” Africa. The scene entails an exchange between Karen Blixen and her lover Denys Finch Hatton about a group of Kikuyu living on Blixen’s property.

Hatton: “When they said they’d like to read, how did they put that exactly? I mean, do they know they’d like Dickinson?”

Blixen: “You don’t think they should learn to read?”

Hatton: “I think you might have asked them.”

Blixen: “Did you ask to read when you were a child? How can stories possibly harm them?”

Hatton: “They have their own stories, they’re just not written down.”

Blixen: “And what stake do you have in keeping them ignorant?”

Hatton: “They’re not ignorant. I just don’t think they should be turned into little Englishmen.”

I took the exchange to be a critique of westernization in any of its guises, whether it be colonization or development. It challenges ideas of (often externally imposed) “universal” development. Literacy is a perfect example. While the written word is an incredible achievement, it tends to destroy another equally incredible achievement – oral history. Wade Davis says that writing “permits and even encourages the numbing of memory. Oral traditions sharpen recollection, even as they seem to open a certain mysterious dialogue with the natural world.”

Davis describes what happens when villager or nomad children in Kenya go to Western-style schools:

“[They] acquire a modicum of literacy and certain basic skills, but in an atmosphere and with a pedagogy that teaches them to have contempt for their fathers and their traditions. They enter school as nomads, graduate as clerks, and drift south to the cities where the official unemployment rate is 25 percent and more than half of high school graduates are without work. Caught between worlds, unable to go back, and with no clear path forward, they scratch for a living in the streets of Nairobi and swell the sea of misery that surrounds the Kenyan capital.”

Kenyan journalist Aidan Hartley, whose father was a high-level Swahili-speaking colonial official, describes his dad’s discontent with how Western-style development had destroyed Africa’s landscape and traditional cultures (though Hartley was by no means defending colonialism):

“He missed what Africa had once been. When we drove through sprawling towns he would describe how a few decades before this had been a savannah of swaying grass teeming with game. But the environmental destruction was still taking place, before our very eyes. At sixteen I remember visiting the Cherangani Hills in western Kenya, where the forest was so thick the sunlight barely pierced the canopy of mighty trees to the track along which we drove. A few months later we passed down the same road and for miles around the trees had been felled and burned and the view was bruised, eroding earth to the distant horizon. After sixty years in the continent, my father had come to believe that the Europeans had committed an unforgivable error by sweeping away the traditional culture and economy that Africans had evolved over centuries. The nomad who valued nothing more than his cattle stayed on the move because he knew that to settle would mean death. And yet wherever we went, we saw the new independent African governments, backed by white ‘development experts’, repeating the mistakes of the long past colonial rulers, forcing the nomads into sedentary lives, to put up fences, live in tin huts, to swap their magnificent beads and togas for the cast-offs and ragged clothes of the ‘civilized’ West. The missionaries did their damage too and one Sunday I recall arriving in a northern Kenyan hamlet where nomads were gathering in the hope of food handouts from the foreigners, having lost most of their livestock to drought. As they trekked in the American Baptists’ overseers were handing out polyester trousers and T-shirts with slogans that were meaningless to their wearers. Some of the proud warriors were stalking around in flowery blue plastic bath caps. The missionaries had surrounded the village with loudspeakers rigged up onto tall poles and when it came time for a church service the sermon was broadcast at full volume, so that no matter where the nomads were, they would be harangued and cajoled to convert to Christianity and turn their backs on their past lives in return for the food and clothes they were receiving. For all my father’s enthusiasm his attempts to assist people by enhancing rather than destroying, their traditions were almost certainly in vain. What he showed me on those road trips had more of an effect on me than anything I learned at school. I had witnessed real injustices, poverty, the arrogance of power, the ignorance of the foreigners, the obliteration of proud cultures and beautiful landscapes.”

The modern development paradigm often brings to mind old colonialist efforts to “civilize the savages.” When the colonial powers gathered at the Congress of Berlin in 1884 to carve up the African continent, they pledged to bring civilization to the poor ‘primitives’. The follow-up conference called upon the Europeans to “bring about the extinction of barbarous customs.” This reflected the popular thinking of the day. The Victorian obsession with “progress” was supported by such men as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer. All civilizations were thought to be on a road from savagery (nomadic hunter-gatherers) to barbarism (pastoralism) to civilization (urbanism, literacy).

Later scholars and anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Wade Davis saw that each culture was simply a different expression of needs, conditions, and beliefs. No culture can be objectively superior to another without using a culturally subjective measure. There’s no such thing as “developed” or “undeveloped.” In Davis’s poetic words: “The myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?”

Wade Davis gives one of his captivating lectures during a TED Talk 

Davis goes on to explain how the West’s form of “modernity” is but one of a limitless number of paths that any given civilization may take:

“We too are culturally myopic and often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a world view, and that modernity — whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade — is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history. It is merely a constellation of beliefs, convictions, economic paradigms that represent one way of doing things, of going about the complex process of organizing human activities.”

* * *

The media rightly reports that many of sub Saharan Africa’s economies are booming now, but often neglects to mention the pitfalls of Western-style development. Uninhibited free markets and privatization are often hailed as the magical solution for all of the continent’s ills, much like political independence was falsely assumed to be a panacea several decades ago. It seems they are condemned to repeat the costly mistakes that so many Western countries have made, mistakes that have resulted in rampant inequality, multiple financial crises, and image-based societies often resembling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, drunk and passive off of escapist entertainment and consumption cultures.

The promise of development – that any society can achieve what only a small handful of wealthy countries have – is an empty one, and not necessarily a desirable one. If consumption around the world were brought up to Western levels, we would require the resources of four Earths by 2100. “To define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic well-being is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide,” writes Davis.

The kind of development that’s now being embraced looks like an extreme version of Thomas Friedman’s “flat” world, which always seemed to me a kind of cultureless dystopia. In Davis’s words,

“[D]evelopment for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere […] The fate of the vast majority of those who sever their ties with their traditions will not be to attain the prosperity of the West, but to join the legions of urban poor, trapped in squalor, struggling to survive.”

Modernization need not entail westernization. And why indeed is the West considered “advanced” while the rest of the world is still on “the path to development,” as though there is only one path? Again, Davis is enlightening:

“Our way of life, inspired in so many ways, is not the paragon of humanity’s potential. Once we look through the anthropological lens and see, perhaps for the first time, that all cultures have unique attributes that reflect choices made over generations, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings. Were societies to be ranked on the basis of technological prowess, the Western scientific experiment, radiant and brilliant, would no doubt come out on top. But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.”

Despite the many legitimate critiques of a certain style of development, no one is advocating against progress in Africa or anywhere else. “The goal is not to freeze people in time,” writes Davis. “The point is not to deny access, but rather to ensure that all peoples are able to benefit from the genius of modernity on their own terms.”

Basil Davidson also didn’t want Africans to move backwards, but rather to learn from their past and move forward. “No people can ever return to its past, of course, but there is value in considering what the past can say about its own models, even if only to suggest an experience helpful to the way ahead.”

Rwanda provides a tenable example. The Kagame government is easily one of the most competent in the region (though its meddling in neighbouring Congo has been terribly destructive). Rwanda is often called the “Singapore of Africa,” with “negligible corruption” levels, and Kigali is perhaps the cleanest and safest capital on the continent. Their historically-based Imihigo system, wherein mayors compete with each other by making declarations of institutional goals, is a shining example of using traditional practices to improve modern governance. The system has been met with enthusiasm and “a sense of ownership” among Rwandans. Perhaps the Rwandan model can inspire other African states to pursue an indigenous form of development that builds upon local cultures rather than erases them.

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11 thoughts on “The Failure of the European-Style State and “Development” in Africa

  1. given the length of this essay, and how most of it dwells on how horrible africa “is” (as mostly perceived by non-africans), perhaps adding other examples of good governance practices would help round it out towards the end to take it to some place more useful. rwanda is too specific of an example to mean much to other african countries, considering its tiny population, traumatized history and relatively homogeneous population (3 ethnic groups, 1 of which is 75% of the population)

    what always strikes me is the inability of westerners to draw meaningful comparisons between africa’s current state and the historical paths their own countries/continents took to achieve what they have achieved in terms of governance and building strong institutions. what was life like in europe before and during industrialization? before imperialism when people had to deal with poor monarchies who taxed unfairly and the masses who mostly lived in squalor and disease. how many massacres did europeans have to endure? despot kings and queens? how long did it take for a document like the magna carta to get written? centuries. how long did it take before it developed into something meaningful enough for the british parliament to coalesce around? again, more centuries. fortunately for them there weren’t any foreigners hanging around, looking at their wrist watches and rolling their eyes, moaning ‘come on already’ (or maybe there were).

    newsflash: it is likely that african countries will not wake up tomorrow with all their problems solved. problems that, again, took other continents CENTURIES to get a grip on. if you don’t have the patience or perspective for the long haul, and the sense of compassion that comes with it, then you’re right. this is a draining place to be.

    • Rwanda actually only has two ethnic groups, Banyarwanda and Twa, as the Hutu and Tutsi were historically economic designations. I used it as an example because I lived and worked there, and because there are few other examples. I would be interested in studying Botswana though, which is another example of a successful country.

      Those are good points about how wretched life during the Industrial Revolution often was. My point is, Africa has a huge benefit that Europe did not – it can study mistakes that the West made, and try to avoid them. Instead, it often appears that they are embracing all of the worst things about the West – elitism, consumerism, environmental destruction, etc., and completely ignoring all of the best things – Enlightenment values, civil rights and individual freedom, healthy criticism of government and nationalism, etc. Things are getting worse, not better, because of harmful neoliberal development practices, and anyone who points that out is called “unpatriotic,” or in the case of a foreigner like me, a “racist” or “colonizer” who couldn’t ever possibly understand Africa because of my white skin.

      If there aren’t people constantly criticizing government and development policies, and facilitating dialogue, then how will the continent ever move forward? Rather than get angry at, and insult people with a critical opinion, why not embrace constructive dialogue and provide counter-arguments?

  2. botswana is another tiny country, with a population of 2 million. and diamonds galore. from an administrative standpoint – please come again.

    its not a good sign that you can let yourself say “africa” and “they” as if you are referring to the same group of actors who are all doing the same thing at the same time all the time. also, “enlightenment values, civil rights and individual freedom, healthy criticism of government and nationalism” came about in the west in due course due to a very specific set of social and economic circumstances that allowed those principles to flourish and spread over time. you cannot give africans the cliffnotes to your cultural and historical experiences and expect us (as a continent, in mass) to pass with flying colors, overnight.

    i have not insulted you, nor am i angry with you. please continue to criticize governments and development policies, but try to let your criticisms come from a more intellectually honest place. try harder to contextualize where you are so that your opinions are actually meaningful and not just part of the chorus of people who refuse to look deeper at the issues and people at stake

    • sorry, just to revise something in my previous response:

      “enlightenment values, civil rights and individual freedom, healthy criticism of government and nationalism” came about in the west in due course due to a very specific set of social and economic circumstances that allowed those principles to flourish and spread over time. you cannot give africans the cliffnotes to your cultural and historical experiences—and NONE of the material conditions—and expect us (as a continent, in mass) to pass with flying colors, overnight.

    • So I can’t say “Africa,” but you can say “Westerners,” and generalize about foreigners not being able to understand Africa? There have been many great books written about Africa by “Africans,” but some of the best are also written by Westerners. And it’s absolutely possible to generalize when many countries share a similar history of colonialism and similar development practices.

      Yes, my point is Africa should look to its own history for a way forward, and perhaps NOT so much to “Western” or “European” history.

      And I think my writing is as intellectually honest as can be.

  3. I agree with many of you and your authors’ points. There is not only one “path to development.” When I hear about moving the Yanomami or the San off of their ancestral lands in the name of “sustainable development” I don`t know whether to laugh or cry…what those people(s) have been doing is sustainable, otherwise after 2000 years why would there still be wildlife? It’s the colonial method of depopulating an area of everything that moves within 100 years that is unsustainable…I have come into contact with many development projects over the years. Some are well-intentioned, well-run and inherently respectful of local staff and local ways of doing things. Others are dripping with missionary racism cloaked in condescension and sanctimony…see my Haiti post about the Baptist mission.

    • Yeah. Charles Taylor (the philosopher, not the dictator), talks about modernities, plural, instead of one “modernity,” which I think is a much more enlightened approach.

  4. Interesting article. The problem that I feel throughout your essay is that on one side you encourage Africans to follow their “tribal” political traditions to adapt to the present and prepare for the future and on the other side you seem disgusted when they do not follow the western party “one man, one vote” democracy style with a change of governments every 4 or 5 years, western style.

    When people say Western development might not be the good path for Africa, they never really acknowledge the alternatives and all the fundamental differences (from Western “human rights democracies”) that they might entail.

    When I read you, I am always interested in the facts you present but I feel that you condemn everyone and everything, indiscriminately. You should perhaps research a little bit more into positive African success stories to balance your pessimism. You tried that with the Rwanda example but when one knows where the wealth comes from in Rwanda (the raw materials from neighboring DRC) and how unsustainable the Tutsi form of exclusive government is (one day, everybody will realize that the Tutsis killed the former Hutu president and that this triggered the genocide. Anti-tutsi genocides that are quite recurrent indeed…), one understands that it fell short of providing a good “alternative” development example.

    When it comes to African “development”, there are certainly a lot of horror stories but there are also good African governance examples and also good international community examples.

    Not every aid agency is self serving and not every African leader is a corrupt cannibal bastard, although it is a very fashionable and comfortable perception nowadays.

    • I’m not disgusted, just illustrating how the Western model has failed in Africa.

      My style is not negative or positive so much as it is critical and skeptical in general, which is how I intend it to be. Balancing negative with positive is not my style, at least not in this kind of essay.

      I very much disagree that the Tutsis killed Habyarimana. I think the strongest theory is that Hutu Power killed him (with French missiles) in order to use it as a pretext for the genocide. There are definitely a lot of problems with the government in Rwanda though.

      I would like to do more research about successful administrations, such as Botswana, though I’ve never been there. How did they escape the mineral curse?

  5. I think this is an excellent article for what it’s worth. The illusion of development as a saintly project has done little to engender constructive criticism and has actually been harmful for precisely the reasons you bring up in this article. The White Man’s Burden and Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly are great books on the subject that also merit a thorough read. I especially liked the inclusion of both Wade Davis and Kapucinski, both of which have very insightful views on culture from both an anthropological and journalistic perspective.

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