Every person of African descent, whatever their actual history and experience – they could be Barack Obama, for example — suffers the practical consequences of being stigmatized by colour in a world built on racial difference. This situation will only be ended when economic development guarantees Africans political and cultural equality in that world. Many citizens of the rich countries believe that growth is no longer a priority and should be reversed, but the world’s poor know what they are missing and that ‘development’ is the answer. So what does development mean in the African context and how is it to be achieved in the century to come?
In 1800 the world’s population was around one billion. At that time less than 3% of humanity lived in cities; the rest extracted a livelihood from the land. Animals and plants were responsible for almost all the energy produced and consumed by human beings. A little more than two centuries later, world population has reached 7 billion. The proportion living in cities is about a half. Inanimate energy converted by machines now accounts for the bulk of production and consumption. Taking the period as a whole, the human population has been growing at an average annual rate of 1.5%; cities at 2% a year; and energy production at 3% a year. Many people now live longer, work less and spend more as a result. But the distribution of all this extra energy has been grossly unequal. A third of humanity still works in the fields with their hands. Americans consume 400 times more energy than the average Ugandan.
‘Development’ thus refers first to this hectic dash of humanity from the countryside to the city. The engine driving economic growth is assumed to be ‘capitalism’. Development then means trying to understand how capitalist growth is generated and how to make good the damage it causes in repeated cycles of creation and destruction. A third meaning refers to the developmental state of the mid-twentieth century, the idea that governments are best placed to engineer sustained economic growth with redistribution. Pioneered by Fascist and Communist states, this model took root in the colonial empires around the Second World War, was adopted after it by the leading Western industrial societies and then became the norm for developing and newly independent countries until the 1970s.
The most common usage of ‘development’ over the last half-century, however, refers to the commitment of rich countries to help poor countries become richer. This commitment was at first real enough, even if the means chosen were often flawed. But after the watershed of the 1970s, it has faded. If, in the 1950s and 60s, the rapid growth of the world economy encouraged a belief that poor countries too could become rich, from the 1980s onwards ‘development’ has more often meant freeing up global monetary flows and applying sticking plaster to the wounds they inflicted. Development was thus the label for political relations between rich and poor countries after colonial empire.
There have been massive discrepancies in regional development since the collapse of the European empires. Many Asian countries installed successful capitalist economies, with and without western help, triggering an eastward shift in the balance of global economic power. But Africa, the Middle East and much of Latin America, stagnated or declined since the 1970s – a pattern from which Africa now seems to be rebounding. Various development models have emerged from this regional divergence, with an Asian emphasis on authoritarian states being opposed to Western liberalism and radical political alternatives coming out of Latin America.
There are two pressing features of our world: the unprecedented expansion of markets since the Second World War and massive economic inequality between (and within) nations. Becoming closer and more unequal at the same time is a recipe for disaster. Forbes magazine reported in March 2009 that the top ten richest individuals had a net worth between them of $250 billion, roughly the annual income of Finland (population 5 million) or of middle-ranking powers such as Venezuela (28 million), South Africa (49 million) and Iran (72 million). The same quarter trillion dollars equals the annual income of 26 Sub-Saharan African countries with a combined population of almost half a billion. Providing adequate food, clean water and basic education for the world’s poorest people could be achieved for less than the West spends annually on makeup, ice cream and pet food. Car ownership in developed countries is 400 per thousand persons, while in the developing countries it is below 20. A report published just before the millennium claimed that world consumption increased six times in the previous two decades; but the richest 20% accounted for 86% of private expenditure, the poorest 20% for only 1.3%. Africa, with a seventh of the world’s population, then had 2% of global purchasing power.[xii]
What could Africa’s new urban populations produce for the world economy? So far, countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could; minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand. The world market for food and other agricultural products, however, is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed by the large number of poor farmers trying to sell their crops. Conventionally, African governments have aspired to manufacturing as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. It would be more fruitful for African countries to argue collectively in the councils of world trade for some protection from international dumping, so that their farmers and infant industries might at least supply their own populations first.
Exchange between cities and their hinterlands has so far been frustrated for post-colonial Africa whose fragmented sovereignty leaves its 54 countries in a poor international bargaining position. Any collective appeal for greater protection would require serious political coordination of a sort not seen before. The world market for services is booming, however, and perhaps greater opportunities exist there. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, software and a wide range of information services. The future of the human economy lies in the infinite scope for us to do things for each other — singing songs or telling stories — that need not take a tangible form. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. Any move to enter this market will confront transnational corporations and the governments who support them. Nevertheless, the terrain is less rigidly mapped out here than in agriculture and manufactures. Africans are well-placed to compete in this field because of the proven global preference for their music and plastic arts.
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