Contested Development

The End of Development

Andrew Brooks, Zed Books, 2017

Africa’s Long Road Since Independence

Keith Somerville, Penguin Books, 2017


In December of 1974, the water levels of the newly built Cahora Bassa Dam began to rise for the first time. At 171 metres, the giant construction stood out in the Zambezi river landscape in the poor region of north- eastern Mozambique. The $515 million project was an expensive investment for the Portuguese colonialist rulers, and a great effort to bring modernisation to a neglected district of the colony. The same colony would gain independence a year later, only to subsequently be riddled with a bloody civil war lasting 15 years. Nonetheless, in 1974, the finished Cahora Bassa project was celebrated as the end of a grand scheme to promote not only reduced flooding risk and help with irrigation, but also the facilitation of further settlement of white Europeans in the area, and generation of a substantial economic boost from hydroelectricity.

Independence came to Mozambique, only months after the construction of the dam was finished; the free people, however, did not enjoy the financial benefits. Only 18% of its shares were held by the government, with the remaining 82% in the possession of the Portuguese-state owned company, Hidroeléctrica de Cahora Bassa (HCB). The huge financial investment involved in bringing about the dam meant that the Mozambican government did not profit from the lucrative use of the construction (Cahora Bassa is the biggest hydroelectric scheme in Southern Africa) until 2007, when it finally paid the $900 million to the Portuguese HCB to gain 85% of the holdings. Until then, the monstrous Cahora Bassa had been a constant reminder of the colonial legacy of Mozambique, not just of the years of oppressive rule, or the civil war that followed liberation, but of the persisting inequalities that lingered even in forested corners of the Zambezi River. Salvaging Cahora Bassa from European possession represented taking control over one’s own river system and the benefits it produced. Yet, it also meant the acquisition of money generated from dislocating native peoples and the ruin of traditional agricultural practices and the natural habitats of local animals, all of which was suffered through the building of the dam. The Mozambican undertaking represents the essence of the trajectory of development – change facilitated by an external force to make up for past disruption by the same force.

The Cahora Bassa constitutes an illustrative example of several of the complex issues surrounding international development. It seems useful to first consider why development was perceived necessary. ‘International development is an intentional intervention to confront the depredations wrought by centuries of capitalist development in the colonized parts of the world’ writes Andrew Brooks in e End of Development. He emphasises the difference between two types of development: an international one, and a capitalist one which precedes the former. The success of early Spanish colonialism in the Americas, where continuous extraction of metals and riches in tandem with a decimation of native peoples and their culture, financed the geopolitical endeavours of Charles V of Spain. Today, Native Americans remain marginalised and are far more likely to face social issues such as poverty and unemployment than white Americans. A similar experience permeates African history, perhaps best illustrated in twentieth-century South African apartheid. Inspired by Charles’ mineral gains, great naval powers such as the Dutch and, perhaps more prominently, Britain, set up their respective East India Companies in the early seventeenth century. The mercantilism of these naval powers helped to promote their own imperial ambitions as well as bolster their power in Europe, at the expense of the traditional societies they conquered. Further colonialist surges led to the establishment of the triad of British trade: British textiles and metal traded in African colonies, from which slaves were taken across the Pacific Ocean. The fruits of slave labour in cotton and sugar plantations spurred the ongoing process of industrialisation in the Old World. Britain would come to culture colonies in India, Australia and British Guyana, and would at the height of its power control a quarter of the global population. Other European powers followed similar trajectories of colonisation, which culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1884-5. Led by Chancellor Bismarck, it was the setting for the infamous Scramble for Africa, which divided the continent by straight lines into areas of suitable size for colonial representation, something Keith Somerville, in his book Africa’s Long Road since Independence, views as haunting the growth and development of the areas for the century to come. The partition of Lake Malawi between Tanzania and Malawi, for instance, is still contested, and this dispute has flared up since oil exploration has rendered it potentially even more lucrative.

Although colonialism incorporated a variety of different ambitions, ranging from the naïve desires of explorers to the religious duties felt by missionaries, Brooks is adamant that the very core of colonialism was capitalism. As he writes: ‘controlling space through the state was essential for capital accumulation.’ If this is true, then more space is needed as the ambition and consumption of the state expand. Capitalism was the driving force of the industrial revolution, dividing the world into a bourgeoisie and a proletariat, the former as a growing middle class that was eager to spend its money on faraway produce. This resulted in the exploitation of large swathes of the non-European world. The slave trade is perhaps the most obvious example of the inhumane consequence of imperial ambition. Traditional societies and ways of living were substituted for surplus agriculture for imperial nations, which endangered food security in years of crop failure. Although international trade brought new products to the market, vast groups of unpaid labourers could not access its benefits. Despite increasing minerals, metals and petroleum exports to Europe, African economies did not receive the true fruits of their harvest as their exports were mainly unrefined produce, with protectionist market laws in Europe inhibiting the direct import of refined, and more valuable, African goods. Widespread experiences of Dutch disease and the resource curse, both pertaining to failing investment from export earnings, underpin this notion. In short, European powers exposed their colonies to the capitalist mode of production, and made them dependent on its global trade, but did not support the development of an industrial sector and a diversified market. Thus, the need for international development arose not because traditional societies were unfit to survive, but because decolonised states experienced a skewed exposure to capitalist forces.

When Ghana became the first sub-Saharan former colony to gain independence in 1957, it marked the beginning of a more intense type of international development. The ‘growth of national consciousness’, as the then-Prime Minister of the UK, Harold Macmillan, famously orated in his 1960 speech, was a time of optimism for African potential. Western notions of African futures usually followed the optimistic ideas of the liberated states as embryonic versions of the Global North, with a natural end goal of democracy and a strong free market. Retrospectively, it seems easy to deflate this desired balloon of ubiquitous Western modernity. Although some states, like the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), have accomplished rapid economic success and growth, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that the new states of the 1950s and 1960s could ever have lived up to such romanticised ideals. The decolonised states had been deprived of their natural resources, and lacked the possibility of using other annexed lands and their produce as springboards for their own development. Perhaps most importantly, they were hardly states at all. The ‘national consciousness’ that Macmillan spoke of was really only present on the map. In reality, the harsh borders agreed upon in the Berlin Confererence did not have the geopolitical stability offered by natural borders, nor did they prevent cultural and ethnic fragmentation. The nascent states were a collage of various minorities, which resulted in civil conflict and civil war. Somerville’s narrative centres more on the legacies of these political disruptions. Where Brooks sees capitalism as the key impediment to African development, Somerville has a more multifaceted view, taking into account the consequences of the rules of Robert Mugabe, Charles Taylor, Idi Amin, and the like. Early on, he suggests ‘Africa as an entity rather than a geographical expression was invented by Europeans’, highlighting that achieving both interstate and intrastate unity on the continent was a tall order. A discussion of sufferings pertaining to clashes between different ethnic groups gives further nuance to Somerville’s views. South African apartheid created a two-tier economy of black and white that persisted long after Independence, and the Rainbow Nation has seen several instances of xenophobia in recent years. Rwanda would experience a civil war and genocide against an estimated one million Tutsis in 1994 by the ruling Hutus, and in Nigeria, clashes between the Igbo, Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba minorities characterised the late 1960s.

Despite earlier political instability, Nigeria has more recently been seen as a promising African nation. It boasts oil reserves that attract foreign investment, and thus can more easily follow the desired economic development of a decolonised state. A hallmark for this is the Nigerian city of Lagos, a powerhouse with an estimated population of 16 million, and a major African financial centre. The island of Victoria has many of the characteristics of a global node: it houses expensive hotels and luxury stores, as well as grand villas for the financial elite, many of whom made their fortune on the Nigerian oil reserves in the Niger Delta. But, there is a dark side to the black gold. Apart from vast supplies of oil, the Niger Delta used to boast one of the most fertile agricultural areas on the planet: its mangrove forests. However, an outdated industry of rough oil extraction and explosions of petroleum pipes, most notably of the American oil company Texacom and the British-Dutch Shell, has caused severe environmental contamination of the lands. The damage caused by the companies to the forest’s unique ecosystems is viewed as irreparable. Where Brooks is prone to attributing problems simply to western failures, Somerville argues in this case for more nuanced links: between poor local governance and neoliberal policies promoting investment, and how these interact with western companies. Shell and British Petroleum, the main foreign investor companies extracting Nigerian oil, have been criticised for exploiting the country’s environment without respect to either its inhabitants or the sustainable development goals. Similarly, the Nigerian government has been publicly condemned for failing to provide better living conditions and enabling its citizens to profit from the natural resource. Somerville notes that corruption is widespread, and despite the apparent wealth and modernisation of Victoria Island, too many Nigerians still live in poverty. The potential alleviation that could have been provided by the oil money has disappeared into the pockets of foreign investors and Nigerian state officials.

The Nigerian case raises two issues: the first is the constant corruption affecting many African governments, and the second surrounds environmental destruction following increased industrialisation. Corruption in Africa, though hardly limited to the continent, is in many ways a consequence of African disunity. When colonialist rule left behind newly independent yet governmentally unstable states, enormous structural change was needed in order to come to terms with huge divergences in income and living standards. In many cases the ruling elite became a type of neo-colonial replacement. South Africa is an example of how, despite the formal abolition of apartheid in 1994, many black people continued to live in severe poverty, with a few select black families joining the affluent whites in the top layer of the politically entrenched two-tier economy. As for environmental destruction, financial aid from the Global North to the Global South is often conditional on meeting certain demands, and reducing environmental impact is one of those. Brooks argues that it is hypocritical for Western states to demand environmental compliance from poorer African states, when they themselves have enjoyed an industrialisation accompanied by unparalleled environmental destruction. Somerville broadly agrees with this sentiment, and calls for a Western critique more tied to what is realistically achieved, rather than what would be an optimal outcome. Much like the idea of African national consciousness, there is a gap between the desired outcome and the harsh realities of international development.

Development in Africa thus became a prerequisite following independence, due to the capitalist legacy of colonialism. This development aimed to expand African markets and establish democratic states; but the colonial inheritance did not leave the new states with the right conditions to do so, resulting in corruption, political instability, and pollution of the natural environment. Despite these setbacks from the proposed pathway of development, the Global North continued to pump money into the African states, much in the form of foreign investment in states along the West African Oil Belt including Angola and Ghana. Rather than enjoying the direct benefit of having oil, these states became rentier states, dependent on monetary transfers from foreign firms extracting their natural resources. Outsourcing the oil industry not only hampered Ghanaian ambitions to industrialise, but also made Ghana vulnerable to the unpredictable financial desires of external corporations. Only after a long legal battle between the Ghanaian government, and two international investors, Kosmos and ExxonMobil (at the time chaired by current Secretary of State of the USA, Rex Tillerson), could Ghana enjoy the financial benefits of its own natural resources. Ghana was assured that Kosmos, the original investors, would not sell its shares to third party ExxonMobil.

Financial volatility was even worse for countries without great natural resources. As a general trend, African economies failed to diversify and came to rely too heavily on single, unrefined commodities, the price of which continued to fall throughout the twentieth century. Whilst the Global North made great fortunes on new technology and personal services, African economies lacked market competitiveness, and their extensive borrowing resulted in a debt crisis in the 1980s. Unmanageable debts and falling standards of living in the African region pushed the IMF to approve ‘structural adjustment programmes’ (SAPs), which focused on expanding the markets and reducing government spending – a process which proved devastating for those in poverty. In general, the programmes opted for policies that protected the free market to boost economic growth. However, they also greatly reduced the welfare of the affected states, cutting wages and food subsidies whilst simultaneously raising the price of public services. Somerville sees the SAPs as having failed to address the specific economic shortcomings of each country. For instance, if the Senegalese economy was hampered by prolonged droughts, a more stabilising way of ensuring market stability would be drought relief and food security programmes, rather than a crude SAP. Brooks, again, takes a more Marxist view, and sees the general effect of SAPs as having created cuts that ‘were staggeringly deep in many countries, not just trimming the fat from state bureaucracy, but slicing through the muscle that delivered vital services and into the very bones that structured society.’



So far, international development directed at Africa had failed to create strong, independent states, and had instead replaced colonial dependency with another structural dependency: this time on financial alleviation and obligation. Attempts by the Global North to (as President John F Kennedy famously said) ‘help them help themselves’ had seemingly had very limited success – they were as much a way to relieve a bad conscience from morally reprehensible actions in the past as an effort to spread Western values. Yet a new dawn of African development appeared to have broken with the turn of the twenty-first century. The notion of a ‘rising Africa’, with increasing GDP and purchasing power, appeared to be a harbinger of great and ubiquitous change.

However, both Brooks and Somerville express pronounced scepticism towards this claim. A substantial financial drain out of Africa, with an estimated outflow of $58 billion per annum to Western global powers, emphasises the lack of financial stability in the region. High growth rates are only sustained by a high income from commodities such as oil and metals, the volatility of which was seen when plummeting oil prices in 2015-16 struck down many African economies. Given the persistent decline in the price of oil, the future of oil giants like Nigeria and Angola, earlier praised for giving Africa a new sense of hope, remains uncertain. Although Africa is, as a whole, more democratic than two decades ago, insurgencies are far from uncommon and the presidency of Jacob Zuma in South Africa, a country often seen as being at the forefront of African democracy, has been riddled with corruption charges. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening, even in oil-rich states like Nigeria, where the percentage of people living in absolute poverty increased from 55% in 2004 to 61% in 2013.

But not all is bad. Communication is expanding through the use of mobile phones and ameliorated data networks, and oil rich countries have seen a steady increase in secondary school enrolment, which some estimate to be as high as 50% – with foreign aid facilitating improved infrastructure and stable institutions. Maternal health is improving and infant mortality is falling: despite heavy setbacks faced by HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, as well as the Ebola epidemic of the Western regions, public health efforts have progressed a long way. Somerville laments that not enough international praise has been given to African states for their own management of the epidemic: ‘The Western media discourse presented the outbreaks as the results of states being backward and corrupt, playing up the role of Western agencies while to a great extent ignoring the sacrifice of Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean health workers.’ He argues that a narrative of African mismanagement and the dire need for international aid might subdue the progress being made on a micro-level.

The main point of contention to the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is the growing dependence on, and indebtedness to, new world powers, mirroring the events leading up to the debt crises of the past century. BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), hungry for both the lucrative use of natural resources and political influence stemming from dependency contracts, are increasingly investing in and lending to African regions. China is the main importer of Mozambican timber and has also provided generous loans to struggling states. More than half of Kenyan national debt is now owned by China. Past experience with the damaging SAPs following unmanageable debts ought to make African states wary, but Brooks interprets the contracts with BRICS as a way of reinforcing state independence and choice.

Malawi, a small landlocked state that gained independence in 1964, was ruled by formal democracy that was in fact borderline autocracy, under President Mutharika in 2004-12. During his presidency the country lapsed into financial crisis when minimum-price rules were enforced to protect the export price of tobacco, the main commodity. The local kwacha became heavily overvalued and inflation soared, leading his successor, Joyce Banta, to devalue the currency by 50% when she came to power in 2012. Somerville notes that this was highly facilitated by the use of social media as a platform of criticism and scrutiny, illustrating the methods by which African incorporation into global telecommunications is changing the African political landscape.

Despite international praise and repaired relationships with past Western donors, however, Banta became highly unpopular domestically, after her devaluation of the kwacha lowered living standards. A later corruption scandal cost Banta the premiership in the next round of elections, and Mutharika’s brother, Peter, succeeded her. Rather than courting the past donors, Peter Mutharika exhibited a more optimistic view of a partnership with BRICS powers. Instead of following an old path of dependency on the global North, African economies are now increasingly opting for a new type of global relationship. Although the dependency on BRICS is technically similar to that of old foreign help contracts with the US and European powers, it offers a different principle of choice, and illustrates that African states have gained the confidence to choose their own economic routes. Whether this gamble will foster the illustrious African unity that Macmillan discussed, or if it will once again render the states vulnerable to harsh contracts of debt alleviation, remains as yet to be seen.

International development arose as a necessary response to the dire conditions in which African communities were left, following the withdrawal of colonial rule. International development has thus always been a case of making up for past injustice. New states were formed based on arbitrary administrative convenience, with scant regard for ethnic composition and natural borders – paving the way for an unstable political climate and a lack of uniting language and culture. Exploitative use of both labour and resources left Africa with limited access to the global market, and difficulties in international competition caused over-dependency on certain commodities, lack of diversification, the rise of rentier states, and eventually a negative spiral of debt and borrowing.

African development and its hindrances seem therefore an intrinsically complex matter, and Somerville manages to present the different aspect of Western legacies and exploitation, whilst also taking into account the realities of corruption and mismanagement within the state apparatus. A more Marxist view, as proposed by Brooks, does bring an interesting perspective of the capitalist ideal itself generating a lagging process of development. The obvious downfall of this viewpoint is that it neglects to account for why states failed to flourish in the more socialist decades leading up to the capitalist zenith of the 1980s. Yet this idea is a thoughtful reminder of the privileged demands of the Western world.

Perhaps best mirrored in international scrutiny of failing African environmental considerations, we can never forget the history of the institutionalised destruction of nature. This raises questions about the role of hypocrisy, and what demands can be judged as fair. Much like the towering Cahora Bassa, the shadow of colonialism is still visible in every aspect of African politics. Tellingly, the way in which international development in the twenty-first century is increasingly synonymous with African development highlights the mismanagement of the continent ever since it became its own.