Rodney’s classic 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a must-read for all serious Africans.
[From The Archives]
This is the postscript written in 1971 in the 1972 edition of Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” by Abdulrahman Muhammed Babu, a Tanzanian revolutionary—who went by the name A.M. Babu—and former economic development minister. The message in Babu’s essay, and Rodney’s book, are as relevant today as they were then.
Are there short cuts to economic development for the underdevelopment economies? This questions has occupied the attention of many interested parties during the last decade.
These include university lecturers, International economists, the United Nations and its agencies, the O.A.U., planning agencies, economic ministers. Many international conferences under various sponsorship have been held during the decade and volumes of resolutions, guidelines, learning documents, and theses have been published. The end result has been negative. The developing countries continue to be remain underdeveloped, only getting worse in relation to the developed countries.
By and large the question still remains unanswered. Are we going to repeat the same exercise all over again during this decade? From the look of it, it appears that we are. Already the UN has launched the Second Economic Decade with the same zeal and fanfare as they did with the first. The same appeal has gone out to the developed countries to be charitable and contribute “one percent of their national income” for helping the developing countries, as if the population of the world can continue to condone poverty so that the rich can be charitable! If past experience is anything to go by, the seventies will experience the same disappointments which climaxed the end of the sixties.
What, we may ask, has gone wrong? Is it something inherent in the very nature of underdevelopment that makes development such an impossible task? Among the many prescriptions that have been offered—e.g., cultural, social, psychological, even economic—none has produced any encouraging results. In fact nearly all of them have had negative results, and made bad situations worse. Are we to continue with the same experiments at the expense of the people, who, let’s face it, have borne the whole burden of these experiments throughout the last decade? This is the question to which all the developing countries, especially those in Africa, must address themselves. And the sooner, the better, because there is very little time left before our economies become permanently distorted and probably too damaged for any meaningful reconstruction in the future.
Dr. Walter Rodney, in this very instructive book, provides a refreshing opening for discussion which may well lead to finding the right solutions. He is raising the most basic and fundamental questions regarding the nature of underdevelopment and economic backwardness. Unlike many works of this nature, which to all intents and purposes have approached the problem with a sort of metaphysical outlook (garbed, it is true, in scientific terminology), Dr. Rodney follows the method of historical materialism, which in effect says: “To know the present we must look into the past and to know the future we must look into the past and the present.”
This is a scientific approach. We can at least be sure that the conclusions will not be marred by subjective distortions.
It is clear, especially after reading Rodney’s exposition, that throughout the last decade we have been posing the wrong questions regrading economic backwardness. We did not “look into the past to know the present.” We were told, and accepted, that our poverty was caused by our poverty in the now famous theory of the “vicious cycle of poverty” and we went around in circles seeking to ways and means of breaking that circle. Had we asked the fundamental questions which Rodney raises in this work we would not have exposed our economies to the ruthless plunder brought about by “foreign investments” which the exponents of the vicious cycle theory urged us to do. For, it is clear, foreign investment is the cause, and not a solution, to our economic backwardness.
Are we not underdeveloped now because we have been colonized in the past? There is no other explanation to the fact that practically the whole of the underdeveloped world has been colonized either directly or indirectly by the Western powers. And what is colonialism if it is not a system of “foreign investments” by the metropolitan powers? If it has contributed to our underdevelopment in the past, is it not likely to contribute to our underdevelopment now, even if the political reins are in our hands? Put in this way the question of underdevelopment is immediately rendered more intelligible, even to the uninitiated. And this is how Dr. Rodney is directing us to pose our questions.
The inevitable conclusion is that foreign investment does not only help to undermine our economies by extracting enormous profits, but it does more serious damage to the economies by distorting them into lopsidedness, and if the process is not arrested in time, the distortion could be permanent. As long as we continue, as we have done for centuries, to produce for the so-called world market which was founded on the hard rock of slavery and colonialism, our economies will remain colonial. Any development will be entirely incidental, leaving the vast majority of the population wholly uninvolved in the economic activity. The more we invest in export branches in order to capture the “world market” the more we divert away from investing for people’s development and, consequently, the less effective our development effort.
And since this time of investment does not contribute much towards the development of a material and technical base internally, our economies are rendered always responsive only to what the Western world is prepared to buy and sell, and hardly responsive to our internal development needs. That is why, although most of our development plans make elaborate resource allocations for “rural projects,” invariably most of these resources find their way back to the urban projects and consequently accentuate the urban-rural disparities. Slums, unemployment, social maladjustment, and, finally, political instability are our most outstanding characteristics.
Almost without exception, all the ex-colonial countries have ignored the cardinal development demand; namely, that to be really effective, the development process must begin by transforming the economy from its colonial, externally responsive structure, to one which is internally responsive. Where we went wrong is when we followed blindly the assumptions handed down to us by our exploiters. These assumptions can be stated briefly as follows: Growth in undeveloped countries is hampered by inadequate growth in exports and inadequate financial resources and is made worse by “population explosion” in these countries. And the solution is prescribed as follows: Step up exports, increase aid and loans from the developed countries, and arrest growth in population.
Throughout the last decade our efforts have been to follow religiously the above prescription, and even if our experience continues to disprove it, we still adhere to it even more fanatically! The greatest need appears to be a process of mental de-colonization, since neither common sense nor sound economics, not even our own experience, is with us in this.
Experience of other countries that have chosen a different path, a path of economic reconstruction, is most instructive here. Take North Korea or Albania. Both these countries were underdeveloped as late as the fifties. The reason they have been able to register most outstanding economic progress is that they have decided to opt out of production for the so-called world market and have diverted their resources toward the development of a material and technological base internally.
The Pearson Commission’s Report—Partners in Development—has been hailed, even by the developing countries, as ushering in a new era, a sort of turning point, in international cooperation for development. Even if its recommendations were to be adopted and implemented in toto it is doubtful if it would make any impact on the ever widening gap between the developed and the developing countries. This is because it has avoided tackling the most fundamental question, namely, “Can development take place when our production strategy is influenced by the demands of the world market which is determined almost exclusively by the pattern of production and consumption with capitalist Europe and America?” In other words, in distorting our economies to fit in with the demands of the world market, the demands of which are not always compatible with the demands of our development, are we not, in the process, depriving our economies of the capacity for self-sustaining growth which is a precondition to development?
The significance of Dr. Rodney’s book is that it is addressed, quite appropriately, to the masses and not to the leaders and one hopes that it will be instrumental in arousing some mass action by the people. In the absence of committed leadership, many African countries have fallen prey to military exploitation, to the extent that today the generals constitute the majority at the African summit. This is as it should be, because when the political leadership loses the sense of internal direction, when, in bewilderment, it gives up its effort to find solutions to people’s problems and begins to accumulate wealth for its own individual use, political leadership tends to get increasingly “commandist” in its state operations. Logic and rationale become subversive. And when politicians become commandists, they too become redundant, because who is better fitted to giving command than the army?
With very few exceptions it is sad to have to admit that Africa is ill served by the current conglomeration of what passes for leaders throughout the continent. When Asia and Latin America produce giants, like Mao, Ho, Che, who inspire and excite the imagination not only of their compatriots within their borders, but of the rest of the world, including the developed world, Africa has produced only one Nyerere and maintained him in power, while we have murdered Lumumba and have locked up or exiled leaders like Ben Bella and Nkrumah in response to the wishes of imperialists—our donors, our moneylenders, our patrons, our masters, our trading partners.
With all due respect, it is difficult to imagine, apart from one or two honorable exceptions, any of the present leaders who is capable of standing up for the genuine rights of his people, knowing that these rights are of necessity directly opposed to the interests of imperialism. And yet such a stand is necessary if we are to really fulfill our obligation as leaders; otherwise, we have no right to impose our leadership on the people. While most of the leaders on the continent have no sense of urgency in solving the problems of people’s misery, since they don’t bear the brunt of their misery, the masses, who do, cannot wait. That is why one hopes that Dr. Rodney’s book will be read by as many people as possible because it has come at a time when it is most needed, for action.
After reading the harrowing account of the brutalities of slavery, of subjugation, of deprivation and humiliation, when whole civilizations were crushed in order to serve the imperialist interests of the West; when settled societies were disintegrated by force of imperialist arms so that the plantation owners of the “new world” could get their uprooted, and therefore permanent, labor force to build what is now the most advanced capitalist economy, it becomes absolutely clear that the only way out of our current impasse is through a revolutionary path—a complete break with the system which is responsible for all our past and present misery.
Our future course must be guided dialectically. If by looking into the past we have known the present, to know the future we must look into the past and the present. Our action must be related to our concrete experience and we must not give way to metaphysical hopes and wishes—hoping and wishing that the monster who has been after us throughout our history will some day change into a lamb, he won’t.
As Engels puts it: “Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws…freedom of the will, therefore, means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject.”
We know the subject only too well, and he is a monster. Do we have the capacity to make a decision—now that Dr. Rodney has provided us with the knowledge of the subject? The people must answer.