June 11, 2008

The Perverse Religion of African Development

Via Africa Unchained, George Ayittey gives a brief historical analysis of the state of development on the African continent:
But there was a pervasive belief among the nationalists and elites that Africa's own indigenous institutions were "too backward," "too primitive" for the rapid development and transformation of Africa. Almost everywhere in Africa, the native institutions were castigated as "inferior." Ashamed of the label of "backwardness," the elites embarked upon a program of development that placed obtrusive emphasis on industry. No longer should Africa be relegated to the "inferior" status of "drawers of water and hewers of wood." Industrialization was synonymous with development. Consequently, agriculture and other primary activities were shunned as too "backward."

. . . .

It was widely assumed, not only by African elites but outside experts as well, that the adoption of foreign values was necessary for successful economic development. Development became synonymous with "change." Nkrumah, again, best expressed this attitude. Though agriculture was the main economic activity of indigenous Africa, he felt he could not rely on peasant farmers for a rapid agricultural revolution because they were "too slow to adapt or change their practices to modern, mechanized methods".

. . . .

Development was almost everywhere in Africa misconstrued to mean "change" and the "adoption of modern and scientific methods." In this rote behavior the real meaning was not clear. The approach was akin to what educators call the "refrigerator fallacy." All teachers have refrigerators and therefore if one tried hard enough to acquire a refrigerator, one would become a teacher! The developed countries were industrialized and therefore if one acquired enough industries (and perhaps a nuclear bomb), presto one would become a developed country.

. . . .

Economic development does not mean the wholesale and blind acquisition of the symbols and signs of modernity. Nor does it mean everything about indigenous Africa must be rejected in favor of alien systems. In fact, the true challenge for development practioners is how to use the existing so-called "primitive, backward and archaic" institutions to generate economic prosperity. These institutions can never be alienated from Africa's peasants. They are part of their culture. One cannot expect these peasants to suddenly renounce their age-old traditions and ways of doing things. Nor is such abjuration absolutely necessary, as demonstrated by the stupendous success of the Japanese. The Japanese did not have to become "Americanized" or "Sovietized" in order to develop.
Read the whole thing.

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