- Can Africa Develop?
This is the last book of renowned African political scientist Claude Ake, who died in a plane crash in Nigeria in November 1996. It is also one of his finest, the closing act to a spectacular academic career that began at Columbia University in New York (his alma mater) in 1969 and later took him to other campuses in the United States, Canada, Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria, as well as to the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Ake was also past president of the pan-African Council for the Development of Social and Economic Research in Dakar, Senegal.
Though it inspired high hopes at independence in the 1960s, the continent that Ake traversed so often has since produced one of the most disappointing overall records of economic development and political stability of all the regions in the developing world. World Bank data indicate that real average personal incomes in Africa are lower today than they were in 1960. International news coverage of the region in February 1997 dwelt on civil war in Zaire, Burundi, and Sudan, and on the continuing strife in Somalia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Even allowing for the inevitable hyperbole and anti-African bias, there is genuine cause for concern.
Development and Democracy in Africa constitutes a valiant effort to address this abysmal situation. In it, Ake makes an eloquent plea for combining democratic governance with new community-based development initiatives that emphasize self-reliance and are designed to build Africans’ self-esteem by giving individual communities the opportunity to set and work toward their own economic goals. Ake, then, does not bemoan the “marginalization” to which Africa has allegedly been subject in the post-Cold War era. On the contrary, international neglect is [End Page 174] portrayed as a blessing in disguise that can spur community action and advance the region along the path to self-reliance. Development, Ake says, is both a process and an end. For too long, according to this book, Africa’s development policies have been determined from without—by bilateral donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and its European counterparts as well as by multilateral development organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations Development Programme. This has prevented African development projects from acquiring the domestic legitimacy that they need in order to take root, a situation aggravated by the authoritarian ways of African despots, whether civilian or military. Again and again Ake reminds us that “the problem is not so much that development has failed as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place.”
The new citizen-based and community-based alternative that the book advocates has already acquired a wide following, especially among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), local and external voluntary associations, and various churches. Some of these groups, working in the trenches with “the people,” have adopted a stridently populist line. So strong is the trend described here, however, that the World Bank and bilateral donors are now consulting with and funding such organizations, all in the name of reaching the people by bypassing government.
The derailment of African nation-building initiatives can be traced to the authoritarian tradition established by the colonial authorities. Colonial rule, writes Ake, was based on force; it was arbitrary and inclined to compel obedience to unpopular policies like taxation, land acquisition, changes in indigenous laws, and abolition of participatory local authorities. Independence brought some change in the personnel managing the state but not in its policies; government “continued to be totalistic in scope, constituting a statist economy.” Worse, after self-rule came, the African political class nurtured a culture of unbridled competition for raw power, thereby marginalizing economic development, which increasingly became the concern of external organizations. Ake does not explain exactly how this particular political culture came about. He repeatedly proclaims that the premium placed on wielding power and exploiting it for personal gain is unusually high in the region; yet he neither attacks nor endorses the growing culture-based literature centered on...