Western Economic Development in Africa

The process of decolonization in Africa had many interesting, positive and negative ramifications for the continent and the entire world. Regardless of the questions of how, why, and in what way decolonization occurred, African independence had ripple effects in many branches of academia. It seems clear from the various readings and lectures from this class that imperialism was a major factor in pushing the racist platform of the imperialists forward. The ideas of social darwinism and the ‘white savior’ aided the agendas of imperialist leaders back home. The conquest of Africa helped alleviate political and class tensions, giving the people of imperialist Europe something to focus on. However, long after slavery was abolished in almost every corner of the world and colonization became a thing of the past, the idea of Africa as an inferior continent because of the people that inhabit it was shockingly persistent. Racism is, of course, still a major problem in both Africa and almost anywhere people of African descent might live. Even now, the idea of the ‘white savior’ has not fully disappeared.

The study of Africa as a continent stretches back hundreds of years. For much of its history, as explained by Jemima Pierre inĀ Critical Terms for the Study of Africa, the field of African Studies was based on racist views held by Western people and scholars. The study of economic development, however, largely ignored Africa until the process of decolonization began. Instead, it focused on countries like the United States. It asked why the Great Depression was so damaging, how it could be avoided, and why the US economy was so successful in the years following the second World War. But as African nations were earning their independence, the field of economic development shifted its focus from the most developed economies in the world to the least. Development economists started asking how to bring Africa as a whole out of poverty and into prosperity.

Much of this early work was concurrent with African independence. The 1950s and ’60s were a time of significant development in the field of development. But as time passed, it became clear that no one macro-level strategy would cure poverty in all of Africa. Some strategies worked for some countries for some time, while others found only stagnation when they attempted to emulate their neighbors. There were complicating factors, as there always are, but the vision of Africa as a collection of many separate but alike nations was fundamentally flawed.

The discipline began to shift again. Perhaps, if there was no solution for the entire continent, it was better to look at the problem on a nation by nation basis. Determining policy and economic strategy to eradicate poverty in a single country is easier than for an entire continent consisting of dozens of independent governments. The idea that there was a single golden economic development story was no longer considered reasonable. This perspective is mirrored in the article from the Economist. The reporter focuses on Africa by region, pushing the narrative that Africa is a continent faced with challenges, but in a position to succeed.

The Economist is a fundamentally conservative institution, and this perspective of Africa, as the one before it, is declining in popularity. The field of economic development in many ways is examining even more specific entities, for instance, conducting studies on how to boost education or female decision making power on a local level. Both of these factors have been significantly linked to the development of a country’s economy, and this is the kind of thing development economists are beginning to focus on.

Even now, the idea of economic development in the United States focusing on Africa is perhaps disquieting. After all the years of racism and discrimination, is this form of aid anything better than the ‘white savior’ idea from the time of imperialism? Is economic development in the West condescending or humanitarian? If aid were to discontinue, would that be a sign of recognizing the implicit racism, or would it be turning a blind eye to those in need? It seems hard to believe that aid today is motivated directly by the ‘white savior’ idea, but perhaps the drive to lend such aid is derived from a lingering sentiments of a time when it would not have been so unbelievable.

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