Africa: the causes of under-development and the challenges of globalisation

Jarle Simensen, Professor Emeritus, Department of archaeology, conservation and history, University of Oslo

The decolonisation of Africa in the 1960s was a watershed experience for the generation that watched a whole continent open up; it spurred widespread engagement and intellectual curiosity. Partner countries south of the Sahara became the focus of Norway’s recently established development aid, and today more than half of Norway’s bilateral assistance still goes to countries in Africa. Even so, the continent has become marginalised in the public debate. This is probably partly due to disappointment over Africa’s lack of development, reinforced by the one-sided, negative picture painted by the media. At the same time, an intellectual curiosity persists; underdevelopment is just as interesting as success. The need for a robust Africa policy is greater than ever.

Internal causes of underdevelopment

A historical perspective is essential in order to understand why African countries have failed to take part in the international economic development we have seen in this era of globalisation. But a reservation is necessary in the context of this article: we must bear in mind that we are employing one specific standard, namely economic growth, which is different from painting a full and balanced picture of the continent’s history and culture. Most of the issues dealt with here are the subject of considerable debate, but a fuller account of them is beyond the scope of an article of this kind. I will focus on sub-Saharan Africa, but I will not go into the specific situation of the Republic of South Africa in any detail.

Geographical and demographic conditions are key factors in Africa’s development, as is confirmed by many of today’s crises. The agricultural revolution and the use of iron tools came to sub-Saharan Africa later than to other parts of the world; indeed some have talked of a “1000-year lag”. The continent as a whole is inhospitable for agriculture. It is also home to a number of indigenous diseases that afflict both humans and animals. For example, the disease-carrying tsetse fly, which is found all over the continent and can incapacitate draught animals, may itself explain the traditional low use of ploughs and other animal-drawn implements. 

Africa’s demographic history has been characterised by low density of population and continuous migration and settlement of new areas. This has continued right up to the present day, and there is still more migration on this continent – including migration between urban and rural areas – than anywhere else in the world. There have been few tightly-knit, stable settlements with established social structures that could form the basis for enduring states and empires of the kind that have fostered advanced civilisations in other parts of the world. This does not mean that African history has been devoid of political dynamism. The medieval kingdoms by the Niger River, the Ethiopian Empire, and the progressive kingdoms in West Africa in the 19th century testify to the contrary. Nevertheless, monumental stone constructions and local written traditions like those found in advanced cultures elsewhere in the world are lacking in Africa.

An important reason for the continent’s technological underdevelopment is the geographical obstacles to communication both internally and with the rest of the world. The Sahara has been a barrier in the north, and the Atlantic coast had no contact with the rest of the world until the first Europeans arrived around 1500. Influence from the Arab world and India came mainly via the Nile Valley and the East African coast, and had little spillover effect further inland. With the exception of the Niger and the Nile, the continent’s rivers with their large waterfalls have not provided a navigable route to the interior, in contrast to the rivers of Europe and Asia. The problems of today’s land-locked states illustrate the great importance of communication for economic and cultural development.

Lack of political stability accounts for many of the development problems in post-colonial Africa, and has deep historical roots. The ethnic diversity of the continent is extraordinary; linguists have identified around 900 separate language groups. Nation-building in Africa’s independent states has thus been particularly difficult. National endeavours have been hampered by internal conflicts and civil wars, and at worst a form of anarchy, as seen in the Congo. The forces behind these conflicts are often complex. But once the parties have resorted to violence, we see in Africa, just as in the Balkans and the Caucasus, that ethnicity overrides all other forms of loyalty with a ferocity that defies belief, but is easier to understand if we bear in mind the role that nationalism has played in European history. Shrewd and ambitious politicians are aware of this, and know how to take advantage of the “tribal instinct” for all it is worth.

Slave trade and colonialism

Can the slave trade and colonialism be regarded as a cause of underdevelopment in Africa today? Africa’s integration into the world market following 1500 – during what we may term the “protoglobalisation era” – took on a perverted form when slaves became the dominant merchandise from around 1650. The cruelties of this trade have left deep scars in both the African and the European psyche. The export of an estimated 12 million people across the Atlantic, and possibly a similar number to the Arab world in the course of a full millennium may have been a factor in Africa’s lower population growth compared with that of other continents. In economic terms, the slave trade tended to overshadow trade in other goods, and although it enabled certain strong kingdoms to increase their power, it was devastating for the groups affected by the kidnappings and conflicts that the trade entailed. In political terms, the rulers who controlled the trade on the African side were caught up in a particular form of dependence that had profound effects on African political culture.

At the same time, African labour played a key role in building up the “Atlantic system”, and was thus a decisive factor in American and European (including Norway’s) development. Here the foundations were laid for a closely knit web of development and underdevelopment. The present day African claims for reparation are understandable. But slavery was also widely practised in African societies, and it was African leaders and intermediaries who brought almost all of the slaves to the coast. African historians have long sought to put the record straight on this chapter of the continent’s history.

Colonial rule can be regarded as the next phase of Africa’s integration into the international system. European policies varied considerably between regions and over time, from a brutal period of conquest at the end of the 19th century to active development efforts following the Second World War. The main achievement of colonial rule was state-building. However, this involved imposing the European system of competing nation states onto the continent through a process of conquest that was largely motivated by European strategic interests. The result was a political map that is economically irrational and dysfunctional. Basil Davidson sums up this state of affairs in the title of one of his books: The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State. One of the most important tasks today is to offset and overcome the limitations of the nation state through the development of regional and continental bodies based on the European model.

The colonial powers developed modern export systems, infrastructure and education facilities that were necessary to make the whole colonisation venture profitable. And indeed, it is difficult to envisage any other way in which Africa could have become integrated into the world market so rapidly. Various counterfactual development scenarios have of course been discussed, and there is an ongoing debate on how realistic they are. Nevertheless, the colonial system can be criticised on several points: for its extreme use of violence during the first phase (for example in southern Africa, where land was confiscated and Africans subjected to forced labour); for taking a disproportionate share of the value created; and for failing to use state power to promote broader development until after the Second World War (particularly regarding higher education).

However, the connection between colonisation and underdevelopment is not straightforward. Independent Ethiopia came at the bottom of all tables of development statistics at the time colonisation was coming to an end in the rest of Africa, and most of the successful newly industrialised countries in South East Asia are also former colonies. Cultivating a victim image will not lead to a productive development strategy.

Post-colonial problems

Why were the post-colonial African states unable to keep up with international economic growth in the way that countries in Asia did? The first answer is that, due to the factors described above, Africa was at a lower general development level at the time of independence. The colonial economy had not penetrated so deeply into African society as it had in the Asian countries that had been under European and Japanese rule. Decolonisation in Africa was primarily triggered by international factors, and most territories were unprepared as regards internal development. Moreover, apart from the European minorities in the southern part of the continent, Africa lacked strong, enterprising minority groups with transnational networks of the type formed by the Chinese in South Asian countries. Indians in Africa were discriminated against both under the apartheid regime in South Africa and under the Africanisation policy in East Africa. 

But the main reason for the weak development of African countries after independence is the failure of the state. The “development state”, based on a state-controlled economy with a high level of protectionism took on a particular and unfortunate form in Africa. In reality, these countries became what Frederick Cooper has called “gatekeeper states” – states that acquired most of their revenue from customs duties, concessions to foreign companies, visas, foreign exchange control, and foreign aid. In many ways, this built upon the legacy of the colonial period and the slave trade. It led to a particularly fierce political competition for control of the state apparatus, and authoritarian regimes – both military and civilian under various ideological banners – became the order of the day in African countries from the end of the 1960s. Development was not necessarily the primary objective of these regimes; their first priority was to tighten political control, control the flow of resources and develop personal networks rather than building well-functioning public institutions. The number of government employees escalated as a result.

In many ways, this form of governance, referred to in the literature as “patrimonial rule” or “personal rule”, reflects traditional African political culture. Here the key unit was – and is – the extended family. It alone could provide security in a state without welfare benefits; and it was unavoidable that family interests would clash with bureaucratic efficiency. The same can be said of ethnic loyalties. This legacy was clearly an obstacle to the development of efficient modern institutions and enterprises. Other factors preventing efficiency were a lack of time discipline and a concept of maintenance. Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal concluded in his major development study, Asian Drama, that institutions and attitudes are the most important factors in economic progress; this is extensively illustrated in Africa.

To what extent has the crisis of African development states been caused by external factors? On the one hand, the new system of international development aid after the Second World War provided significant advantages; never before had newly independent states begun their existence with access to so much development assistance, in some cases amounting to from 30 to 50 per cent of the national budget. This aid played a decisive part in the development that really did take place in the health and education sectors, but it also helped to consolidate the regimes in power at the time. Nearly 30 donor countries – with little coordination of efforts and at times in intense competition with each other – sparked off a new “Scramble for Africa” that was again irrational in economic terms. Fluctuations in the prices of raw materials were a recurring problem. The surge in oil prices after 1973 was a hard blow, and is part of the explanation for the mounting debt problems on the continent.

However, it is once again relevant to make a comparison with countries in Asia. They operated in the same international environment, but during this period they were able to take major steps forward, employing a more open, export-oriented strategy and putting great emphasis on higher education, particularly in technical subjects. A key factor was a tight fiscal policy that ensured stable exchange rates and thus won the confidence of foreign investors. Meanwhile, African countries were plunged into economic crisis on account of artificially high exchange rates, unbridled printing of money and overoptimistic loans from abroad. The hour of truth arrived, bringing hyperinflation and debt crises in the mid-1980s. By then, most African countries were in practice bankrupt, and the international financial institutions, supported by Western aid agencies, marched in to set up debt management arrangements and promote reforms.

The advantages of globalisation

The term “globalisation” came into general use from the middle of the 1980s, primarily in the field of economics, but also in a broader political and cultural sense. This phase of globalisation in Africa can be said to date back to the debt negotiations with the IMF and the World Bank. What positive effects did this have for African countries? The most important were the financial reforms: reasonable macroeconomic order was imposed through devaluation (up to 70–80 per cent in many countries) and deep cuts in public budgets. However, as government leaders safeguarded their position and interests through the budget allocations for so-called sovereignty expenses (the military, the diplomatic service, the apparatus supporting the president’s office, etc.), the cuts primarily affected the general public in the form of reductions in food subsidies and in government spending on schools, health care and other public services. The IMF, the World Bank and Western aid agencies can be criticised for not injecting new funds to alleviate these cuts in social services. There was, in fact, a general reduction in development assistance following the recession that hit the Western economies at the end of the 1980s. The IMF and the World Bank later admitted that their policy had been too rigid. The recipe used after 1990 was to promote a lean, but effective state that could play an active role in development and provide the right conditions for private sector development, along similar lines to Asia.

Another element in the economic reforms was the lowering of tariff barriers and privatisation of state companies. As early as the 1960s, Raul Prebisch, then Secretary-General of UNCTAD, concluded that the policy of import substituting industrialisation (ISI) – i.e. industrialisation behind tariff walls – had its limitations, and that allowing foreign competition could enhance productivity and international competitiveness. But the radical demands imposed by the IMF and the World Bank immediately created new problems for African manufacturers, even though these demands were only partially met in practice. Indeed African economies are still less open than economies in other regions.

The closure or privatisation of most state-owned companies would have become necessary in any case. They were hampered by the same problems as African societies in general: corruption, lack of technical expertise and little institutional loyalty. Norwegian experts observed this first hand in Ghana, where the State Fishing Corporation went from bankruptcy to bankruptcy, and in Tanzania, where industry was extensively nationalised and came to a practical standstill in the 1980s. However, the subsequent takeover of state-owned enterprises by foreign companies led not only to an injection of new capital and expertise, but also to new forms of exploitation in countries with a weak state and poor negotiating and monitoring capacity.

The political effects of the new globalisation from the 1980s were dramatic. In 1989, most African countries were one-party states or military dictatorships; three years later, most had governments that had come into power through multi-party elections, and constitutions that – at least in principle – recognised individual political rights. The World Bank and the Western aid agencies had set political reform as a condition for debt arrangements throughout the 1980s. Broad popular opposition to authoritarian regimes was triggered by the global wave of democracy that swept in with the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. However, the new political unrest also gave rise to an increase in violent internal conflicts, largely, but not solely along ethnic lines. The new-found strength of ethnic feeling was a global phenomenon, and is not easy to explain; in Africa it was clearly strengthened by a combination of economic crises, social frustrations and weak governance. 

The growing international engagement in peace processes in the 1990s must be seen as a positive consequence of globalisation. The African Union has a long tradition of mediation, which reflects the traditional African political culture of consensus. The G8 countries have stipulated that African leaders must monitor each other’s human rights performance in order to qualify for increased development funding, and initiatives such as the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) have been established with this in view. However, as we have seen in Zimbabwe, this is no easy matter. The UN failed in Rwanda, as it did in the Balkans, and so far it has achieved far too little in Darfur. But the UN has also played a key role in a number of peace agreements. It has mobilised emergency relief on a huge scale. And its largest ever peacekeeping force is currently deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The challenges of globalisation – three scenarios

A number of African countries are now enjoying a period of positive development and economic growth compared with the trough reached in the 1980s. The prices of African raw materials are rising, partly due to the growing demand from Asia. But whether this growth is sustainable and whether the democratic reforms will take root remains to be seen. The direction in which globalisation develops will be decisive. Three scenarios can be envisaged:

1. In the pessimistic scenario, African states are unable to progress from “guarding the gate”, and will continue for generations to be weakened by internal conflicts and inter-state wars. External pressure on Africa’s resources will increase, primarily from China, but also from India and Japan, in competition with Western firms. This could lead to a new version of the “Scramble for Africa”, where foreign actors use development assistance, bribes and weapons deals in order to exert influence, and huge assets are taken from the continent without any positive spillover effects in the form of local development and welfare. In this scenario, the new superpower China will have a negative political influence, by undermining international pressure for democratisation in its pursuit of raw materials and supportive votes in the UN, and a negative economic influence by failing to focus on the training and welfare of the local workforce. Cheap Chinese goods will put local enterprises out of business, as we have already seen happening in the South African textile market. The rich countries will be content to make half-hearted concessions in the WTO, without increasing their international development budgets or their contributions to peacekeeping forces. Globalisation continues while Africa remains marginalised.

2. The moderately optimistic scenario is built on the following assumptions. Computer technology and mobile telephony represent new opportunities for overcoming the age-long communication problems in Africa. Exports of raw materials at higher prices provide growing and relatively stable government revenues. African countries achieve some of the “Special and Differential Terms” they have been demanding in the WTO, i.e. open access to Western markets for export of agricultural produce combined with some tariff protection for their own finished products. Security for investors is increased through more effective rule of law, financial reforms and stronger anti-corruption measures. The regional organisations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADEC) and the East African Union gain strength. These organisations foster more sustainable economic units and better opportunities for resolving ethnic conflicts by relieving the pressure on ethnic groups at national level. International development assistance is maintained at a stable level. In this scenario, China could have a positive influence; Chinese demand and investments are beneficial and create new opportunities for African states. There is much that African countries could learn from the Chinese development model. With rapid economic progress in China, Chinese labour can quickly become more expensive, which will in turn make African countries more competitive. There will be further opportunities for transfer of technology and industrial development. This is already taking place through various industrial joint ventures, with Chinese as well as Western companies. Western anxiety over Chinese influence may prove exaggerated.  

3. The radically optimistic scenario represents a new vision, a new approach to Africa’s problems. Globalisation has brought the countries of the world closer together; this means that they are more dependent on each other, and consequently are in greater need of collective action. In a globalised world, it is untenable that one region is left so far behind as Africa is today. It offends any normal sense of decency in the world community. It reinforces an imbalance in the world economy. And it is untenable for security reasons, as witnessed by the growth of fundamentalism and terrorism, illegal immigration, international crime and the spread of epidemic diseases. Sooner or later, a world community with such great disparities will pay the price. The only sensible conclusion is that a reformed globalisation is needed, where international measures are used to strengthen common goods – primarily health and education – in poor countries, just as the power of the state has been employed to ensure redistribution and welfare services in the rich part of the world. Key concepts in this context are “global identity”, “global social contract” and “global justice”.

In addition to debt relief and better trade regimes, this will require direct funding on a scale far greater than has been the case up to now. George Soros, who is particularly concerned about global financial stability, cites major increases in development assistance as the “missing link” in the world economy. Both he and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz discuss how transfers of money that really make a difference could be funded and organised, both of them indicating ways in which the huge currency reserves that states are currently required to maintain could be mobilised. Perhaps more aid should be based on formal contracts with recipient countries so that performance can be better measured? (The latter suggestion was put forward in the Norwegian Report by the Commission on North–South and Aid Policies, published in 1995.) Perhaps a new development body could be established under the UN or under the international financial institutions to manage large-scale development funds?

The question is whether nation states and thus the international organisations will be able to join forces behind an all-out effort of this nature. Will China and India – the new economic giants – become advocates for the poor developing countries, or will they, like the rich countries, concentrate on promoting their own interests? At the receiving end, in the African countries themselves, the question of the capacity to absorb radically larger transfers will have to be considered. This is already a problem with the level of funding today. The Marshall Plan required that a joint European body be set up to define the principles for distribution of the funds (the OECD), and that US monitoring bodies were set up in each recipient country. Similarly, a greater international presence would probably be needed to make aid to Africa more effective. This could in turn facilitate the development of a more transparent and effective state in flexible interaction with the market and with civil society.


It is an intellectual challenge to fully grasp the historical causes of Africa’s underdevelopment and to distinguish between internal and external factors.

On the one hand, many of Africa’s problems are due to a combination of Western and African factors and the fact that Africa has been integrated into the world economy on unfavourable terms. This, together with intrinsic geographical and demographic disadvantages, means that an international effort on a completely new scale is needed to lift the continent out of its present state of underdevelopment. This has been referred to as a “reformed globalisation”.

On the other hand, many of the problems facing African countries are due to internal causes. Ethnic differences and political and cultural traditions have made it difficult to build strong institutions – of the kind developed in Asian countries – that are able to address the challenges of globalisation. This means that African leaders at all levels must take responsibility for improving the situation through self-help, awareness raising and discipline in the broadest sense of the word. African critics have spoken of the need for a “structural adaptation programme”, also with regard to culture.

In his time, Gunnar Myrdal warned of what he called a “mental conspiracy” in development studies: “… research tends to become ‘diplomatic’, forbearing and generally overoptimistic: bypassing facts that raise awkward problems, concealing them in an unduly technical terminology or treating them in an excusing and ‘understanding’ way”. To the extent to which globalisation can help to create a more open society and greater international awareness, it can also lead to a more realistic analysis of Africa’s underdevelopment, in terms of both internal and external causes. Combined with the vision of “reformed globalisation”, this may help to rekindle some of the enthusiasm that went into development efforts vis-à-vis Africa in the 1960s.



Frederick Cooper, Africa since 1940: the Past of the Present, Cambridge
Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation
State in Africa”, London 1992.
Gunnar Myrdal, The Challenge of World Poverty. A World Antipoverty
Program in Outline, London 1970.
George Soros, On Globalization, New York 2002
Joseph Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work, New York 2006.
Muhammad Yunus, Creating a world without poverty : social business and
the future of capitalism, New York 2007.



Sist oppdatert: 22.10.2008
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