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Race and History Forum

How much did Europe underdevelop Africa?

by Martin Henry,

A GENERATION of university students grew up on Walter Rodney's famous 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. By uncritical acclaim and frequency of use, the book has achieved the status of sacred text. The launch of the African Union a couple of weeks ago has resurrected a long, lingering interest in raising some critical questions about the central premise of the book.

Rodney set out his proposition as fact at the start of his second chapter: "It has been shown that, using comparative standards, Africa today is underdeveloped in relation to Western Europe and a few other parts of the world; and that the present position has been arrived at, not by the separate evolution of Africa on the one hand and Europe on the other, but by exploitation. To set the record straight", Rodney declared, "four operations are required."

The first is a reconstruction of the nature of development in Africa before the coming of the Europeans.

The second is the reconstruction of the nature of development which took place in Europe before expansion abroad.

The third operation is an analysis of Africa's contribution to Europe's present state (reminiscent of Eric Williams' equally famous study, Capitalism and Slavery).

The fourth, which is the essence of the book, is analysis of Europe's contribution to Africa's present 'underdeveloped' state.

Emphasising that "a survey of the scene in Africa before the coming of Europeans would reveal considerable unevenness of development, the historian went on to set out the often neglected, little known stories of great African civilisations of the pre-European period. Rodney's example ran from Egypt through Ethiopia, Nubia, Morocco, the Western Sudan, and East Africa to Zimbabwe. The political and military skills and exploits of the great Zulu leader Shaka Zulu were dwelt upon at some length. The suppression and loss of this history is, of course, one of the large negative consequences of the entry of the imperialistic and racist Europeans.

Rodney's Marxist historiographic perspective is very clear. He launches his study with an extensive 1964 quotation from the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara which proclaimed "The surging growth of the countries in the socialist camp" vis a vis capitalist ones, and which called for the complete elimination of capitalist exploitation as "The only way to solve the questions now besetting mankind".

Rodney himself boldly declared that, "It is one of the functions of those who justify capitalism (bourgeois writers) to try to pretend that capitalism is here to stay. A glance at the remarkable advance of socialism over the last 50-odd years will show that the apologists for capitalism are spokesmen of a social system that is rapidly expiring."

In Rodney's view underdevelopment "expresses a particular relationship of exploitation ­ the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as 'underdeveloped' are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now pre-occupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation.

Walter Rodney's answers to "Some Questions on Development" are nothing short of a fulsome socialist homily and a bitter anti-capitalist polemic. He got blown up back in his native Guyana in 1980 before recent history (not mere theory) so thoroughly discredited the most fundamental elements of his framework of analysis.

If Walter Rodney has turned out to be so wrong in the fundamentals of his framework of analysis what confidence can be reposed in his conclusions about how Europe underdeveloped Africa?

Challenging the thesis of "Western responsibility for Third World backwardness", P.T. Bauer one of the world's leading economists, who has been Professor of Economics at, of all places, the London School of Economics as well as a fellow at Cambridge University, demonstrated that, "the poorest and most backward countries have until recently had no external economic contacts and often have never been Western colonies. It is therefore obvious that their backwardness cannot be explained by colonial domination or international social stratification".

Rodney's own extensive data, mobilised of course for the opposite purpose, ironically bears Bauer out. Comparing per capita income of African countries with those of Western developed countries revealed that although all African figures are lower than Western ones the lowest African ones are indeed for countries which have had the least colonial presence and impact! In 1968 US dollars: South Africa (543), Ghana (198), but Congo and Malawi (52 each).
The same is true for steel and sugar consumption, infant mortality, calorie intake, and for doctor to population ratio, which then was: Tunisia (1:8,320), Niger (1:56,140), Chad (1:73,460).

P.T. Bauer points out in Equality, The Third World, and Economic Delusion (1981) that, "Some of the most backward countries never were colonies as for instance Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Liberia, [and] Ethiopia." And he lists a number of Western contributions to development in Africa from wheeled traffic to rudiments of public health.

Bauer acknowledges the West as contributing to Third World poverty in two significant ways: Western activities, particularly since World War II, have done much to politicise economic life in the Third World paving the way for state-controlled economies and totalitarian states. Secondly, Western influence has helped to bring about the sharp decline in mortality in the Third World and a population surge with many more poor people surviving!


South Africa and Zimbabwe present two interesting cases in the discussion. Both were under white minority rule well into the period when most states had achieved Independence under black majority rule. Zimbabwe to 1981; South Africa under Apartheid to 1994. But in the dreadful days of Apartheid the net movement of free migrant labour was from the frontline states into South Africa. Zimbabwe, with the highest literacy rate in southern Africa (88 percent) and under one black ruler, Robert Mugabe, since Independence, is number 117/162 on the UNDP 2001 Human Development Index but even so Zimbabwe was still ahead of more than three-quarters of other African states. South Africa was number 94/162 seven years after Apartheid. Rodney relied heavily on comparative UN data in his own work.

The historian attributed a shocking naiveté to Africans: - "certain Africans became unwitting allies of Europe. Many African rulers sought a European 'alliance' to deal with their own African neighbour. Few of those rulers appreciated the implications of their actions. They could not know that the Europeans had come to stay permanently; they could not know that Europeans were out to conquer not some but all Africans. This partial and inadequate view of the world was itself a testimony of African underdevelopment relative to Europe."

Clearly African underdevelopment is a far more complex matter than a linear cause to effect result of European exploitation, as Rodney so wrongly argued 30 years ago. A far more productive analytic approach would be to attempt to balance contributing factors, and European exploitation may not be number one in a fairer, more balanced analysis. A necessary fifth 'operation' is missing from Rodney's very influential work. It is not only bad history to dismiss the substantial positive out-turns of the clash of civilisations on the African continent as across the rest of the world, in favour of proclaiming the very real negatives; it is dishonest.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant.

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