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  • An Alternative for Africa
  • Adebayo Adedeji (bio)

For more than three decades, Africa has been required to act as if the answer to its socioeconomic problems and the key to its future lay in the pursuit of economic growth based on expanded exports of primary commodities. Over the last 15 years, however, the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that international lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have offered to deeply indebted African countries on "swallow-or-starve" terms have made Africa into a continent that can be molded at will to fit the needs of the global economy. Far from bringing about economic reform, these SAPs have severely eroded the developmental drive that has always been the best hope for stabilizing the precarious political structures that succeeded colonialism. Today, there is hardly a corner of Africa that is not afflicted by violence and on the verge of falling apart.

The World Bank and the IMF (whose policies approximate the collective will of the G-7 countries) have joined with their indigenous political-economic compradors to unravel many of the major achievements of the first decade of Africa's postcolonial history. The stringencies imposed by SAPs caused cuts in education and health care, in the provision of infrastructural facilities, and in the general enabling conditions needed for political stability and socioeconomic transformation. The cumulative result of making development an afterthought is now all too readily visible across Africa: hunger, misery, and despair are rampant. [End Page 119]

The orthodox development paradigm, which understands development in terms of increasing material wealth rather than in terms of the well-being of people, has badly failed Africa. Increases in national per-capita income, rather than in the sustainable quality of life, are at the center of this approach, which dwells on such macroeconomic variables as GDP, savings rates, investment, foreign exchange, and the like. By chasing only material and quantifiable goals while neglecting people, and by relying on models derived from the experience of Western Europe and North America, development economics has only made it more difficult to unlock the dynamic forces that can lift underdeveloped economies out of the depths of poverty and injustice.

Why has Africa not done more to defend its own views and interests? First and foremost, we must look to the colonial legacy of economic underdevelopment, a legacy which lies at the foundation of Africa's vulnerability. Colonialism skewed production toward subsistence farming on the one hand, and exports of primary goods on the other, providing little or no basis for long-term development. Resource extraction favored corruption and the rise of a comprador class loyal to foreign paymasters. Domestic sources of political and intellectual power were weak. Consequently, it is not surprising that foreign-crafted paradigms like the theories of Western development economics have remained dominant and been considered the only ones worthy of attention from the donor community.

Flawed Lenses

More than any other region in the world, Africa has thus become the hapless victim of a massive failure to understand the nature of its problems. Lenses crafted by Europeans and Americans to aid in the inspection of European and North American phenomena cause distortion when trained on Africa—with costs that are not restricted to Africans alone. With the increasing realization that not only capital but also disorder can move around the globe, even the World Bank is beginning to doubt the wisdom of gazing at Africa through European lenses. In a 1989 study, the Bank posed the questions: "Does Africa face special structural problems that have not been properly understood? Has the institutional dimension been neglected? Have the recent reform programs been too narrow or too shallow?"1

A genuine attempt at a full understanding of Africa's economic woes would have revealed that any solution must be premised on the primacy of the people and of human-capital development. These must be at the center of any realistic development paradigm for Africa. Yet the proponents of structural adjustment and of so-called economic reform have simply refused to address honestly and sincerely the questions that the World Bank itself has asked. Had they done so, they would have...


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pp. 119-132
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