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  • Africa:Back to the Future?
  • Thomas Callaghy (bio)

Africa is a weak neighborhood in the international political economy. I use the term "weak neighborhood" in two primary senses, one referring to the acceleration of the continent's economic crisis and its attendant marginalization from the international system, and a second referring to the internal weakness of African states. Africa has been experiencing both economic and politico-strategic marginalization, but the former is more significant. The continent no longer plays a substantial role in the international division of labor and is no longer very important to the major actors in the world economy—multinational corporations, international banks, the leading Western countries, and such newly industrializing countries as Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico. Africa generates a declining share of world output. The main commodities it produces are becoming less valuable or are more effectively produced by other Third World countries. Trade is declining; no one wants to lend to African countries; and few want to invest in the area, with the exception of certain parts of the minerals sector. Developing countries in other areas of the world have performed better in spite of the poor international economic climate, especially during the 1980s.

Africa's per-capita income levels and growth rates have declined since the first oil crisis in 1973, even though the continent's share of worldwide official development assistance rose from 17 percent in 1970 to about 38 percent in 1991. Since 1970, nominal GDP has risen more slowly than in developing countries elsewhere, while real GDP growth rates have dropped dramatically since 1965. Given this dismal economic [End Page 133] performance, it is not surprising that world business leaders have taken an increasingly jaundiced view of Africa.

With the dramatic changes in the international arena, especially the end of the Cold War, Africa has also become of much less politico-strategic interest to the major world powers. As one senior African diplomat put it, "People are tired of Africa. So many countries, so many wars."1 The rise of warlords through regional and civil wars similar to those that took place in Africa in the nineteenth century has challenged the very notion of the nation-state, borrowed from the retreating colonial powers at the time of independence in the 1960s. Today, the independence of Eritrea, the splintering of Somalia, and the potential breakup of countries like Zaire threaten to make national boundaries even more meaningless than they are now. External intervention on the scale recently seen in Somalia is not likely to be repeated. The malign neglect that has characterized the international response to the Liberian, Angolan, and Sudanese civil wars, and most recently—until very late in the game—the tragic events in Rwanda, is likely to be the typical reaction to such conflicts in the future.

The second sense in which Africa is a weak neighborhood relates to the characteristics of its component "nation-states." In the technical sense, of course, Africa's countries are not nation-states at all, for their various peoples rarely constitute viable and recognized nations. In addition, by world standards these states have, on average, extremely limited control and administrative capacity and are characterized by authoritarian, clientelist politics. As Robert Jackson has pointed out, African polities are in many ways "quasi-states" whose often tenuous viability has been sustained in part by the interests of external actors and by twentieth-century international norms.2

With the possible exception of the southern rim of the former Soviet Union, Africa today can be considered the weakest neighborhood in the international political economy. It stands in stark contrast to East Asia, where analysts are beginning to talk about the positive "neighborhood effects" of the impressive achievements of a number of dynamic economies in the region, including those of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.3

The effects of these two primary characteristics of the African neighborhood—economic crisis and marginalization on the one hand, and political weakness on the other—are magnified by interrelated social, health, ecological, and infrastructural crises. Given such a fragile base, democratization may well intensify rather than ameliorate Africa's problems. As in all neighborhoods, some houses in...


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pp. 133-145
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