Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s by Larry Grubbs (review)
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Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s. By Larry Grubbs. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. 2009.

In this engaging and well-written book, Larry Grubbs offers readers an account of U.S. foreign policy toward Africa during the “Decade of Development.” Drawing on a wealth of excellent sources from a variety of disciplines, Grubbs also exposes readers to the dominant, but damaging, narrative of ‘developing’ Africa (i.e. innocent, irrational, and/or corrupt) that U.S. policymakers, politicians and academics produced and “the conceptual and practical problems that bedeviled American aid to Africa” (4) in the 1960s.

Grubbs begins his book by outlining the narrative of innocence that shaped U.S. perceptions of the African continent and its aid policy in the early 1960s. Although Pan-African and dissident voices within the African American and African community consistently objected to the naïve, superficial or racist accounts of Africa produced by American policymakers in this era, the mainstream, Washington-based outlook of the early 1960s projected a picture of a primitive Africa that, with U.S. assistance, could achieve both development and democratization and, in the process, stave off [End Page 215] Communism. Grubbs also explains how secular missionaries (e.g. Africanist scholars, U.S. diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers) fervently spread the gospel of modernization throughout the African continent, thereby furthering U.S. interests.

By the late 1960s, America’s optimistic perspective of Africa’s development had shifted to one of disillusionment. American officials tended to blame Africa’s faltering economic growth rates and political instability on African tradition and ethnicity which conveniently absolved the U.S. of any responsibility for Africa’s problems—from its propping up authoritarian leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko to its resistance to removing trade barriers that would have helped African economies.

Grubbs ends Secular Missionaries with some fascinating parallels between the era of the 1960s and the late 1990s/2000s. Like the Decade of Development, the late 1990s saw the flourishing of an optimistic perspective that U.S. aid could modernize backward Africa. Likewise, during the Bush administration, similar to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the U.S. sent aid to the continent while simultaneously promoting naked political agendas (e.g. Bush created the Millenium Challenge Account and sent covert forces into Africa to combat terrorism) without sensing the contradictions. Alas, history tragically repeats itself.

Or does it? Grubb’s commentary in the final chapter regarding the parallels between U.S. foreign policy in Africa in the 1960s and the more recent decades begs another chapter (or book!) to fully explore the contrasts and comparisons. Where do the Millennium Development Goals fit into the narrative? Inspired by modernization theory, yes, but in tune with, at least on paper, the myriad of needs within different developing countries. Or what about The Jubilee Network, a non-governmental organization with commitments to forgiving debt and cognizant of the neo-colonial abuses different African countries have experienced? Is the U.S. merely repeating past mistakes based on an arrogant amnesia, or has it potentially learned some lessons along the way? I fear, like Grubbs, the former, but more research might uncover some nuanced changes in these areas.

And, for all of Grubb’s attention to detail, some of his arguments beg further explanation. Using the metaphor of ‘secular missionaries’ is conceptually astute, but because the book rests so heavily on this term, a much lengthier account of missionary work, secular and religious, is demanded than the passing reference to V.Y. Mudimbe’s work. Were Christian missionaries truly “the greatest founders of” [colonial] “discourse” (7)? What about those missionaries who resisted the ‘ideals of colonialism’ (e.g. Trevor Huddleston)? Or what about ‘secular missionaries’ involved in local development efforts who challenged neo-colonial ideals in the 1960s? These omissions, and more, create a more complex picture of the development enterprise than Secular Missionaries presupposes.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is an excellent overview of the neo-colonial discourse influencing U.S. foreign aid policy toward Africa in the 1960s. Researchers, students and practitioners in the fields of international development or African studies will surely benefit from reading this book. The...


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