restricted access Periodizing African Development History
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Periodizing African Development History

My ongoing research into the recent history of development in Africa indicates that there are no satisfactory periodizations for this aspect of the continent's modern history. This article suggests principles for such a periodization and proposes a set of periods based on these principles for the latter part of the twentieth century. The examples, data, and literature referenced here are suggestive rather than comprehensive. The intent of this article is to promote debate on periodization in this emerging area of historical study. Critical response to the principles and the periods proposed here is expected.

The definition of the term 'development' is hotly debated, but for purposes of this article a working definition is necessary. The starting point is activity undertaken with the intent to develop, that is to cause certain kinds of change in societies.1 The intention to develop is oriented by visions of the good life, and action to achieve these visions is variously entrusted to, taken up by, or seized upon by a range of more and less formal organizations. This multiplicity of actors name their intent to develop in different ways. However, as Cowen and Shenton note, even those who reject the term 'development' in favour of ones like transformation or revolution, share a fundamental goal: "a surplus population is to be made productive and mass poverty eliminated through some form of empowerment, both through and against the state."2 In current development terminology, this basic goal translates as the enhancement of peoples' well-being, and of their capacity to do and to be things that they value.3 However, as the aim of this periodization is to cover as wide as possible a range of intentional development actors, including some who may dispute this general goal, the working definition adopted here is a broader one suggested by Nederveen Pieterse: Development is "organized intervention in collective affairs" on the basis of "a standard of improvement."4 The impacts of development action—for instance, levels of well-being and capacity, the current standards for improvement—are generated through the intended and unintended consequences of these interventions. They are also affected by the activities of actors that are not engaged in intentional development. Before setting out principles for an alternative [End Page 125] periodization of development based on this definition, it will be helpful to outline the existing periodization.

I. Existing Periodizations of Development History

The standard periodization of development is global, rather than specific to any region. It generally begins in 1945 with U.S. President Truman's Inaugural Address, whose fourth point is seen to have inaugurated the "development age" or the global "development project."5 The contemporaneous creation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods organizations, plus the institutionalization of key aid practices via the Marshall Plan, laid the foundation for an architecture re-purposed for development when post-war reconstruction was done. While a few, like Cowen and Shenton, trace the roots of development back into the nineteenth century, or explore development in specific countries between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, their insights tend not to be incorporated into the standard periodization.6

The standard periodization jumps from 1945 to the 1960s. It identifies the recent independence of developing countries and the Cold War as the context for development. Modernization is identified as the approach to development in this period, with Rostow's Stages of Economic Growth (1960) the iconic work. The primary foci were the economy, and the role that financial aid and technical assistance could play in industrialization and the transformation of agriculture. The construction of large scale infrastructure and the role of the state in planning and implementing development, plus the policy of import-substituting industrialization were other characteristics. Socialist programs of development in this period shared many of these development practices, though their goals and starting premises differed. The iconic texts of socialist development were national five year plans, initially those of the Soviet Union, which were influential far beyond Marxist circles in this and subsequent development decades.

The next period, the 1970s, is presented as the one in which the failure of development to deliver its promised...