Yes, we can. But in my younger days, I thought other explanations impossible. How could there be? That would mean things too terrible to contemplate. My belief then was that if Europeans could not be held responsible for our backwardness, it would imply that we Africans are in some way inherently inferior. In those days, I was not alone in that kind of thinking: my circle of friends always dismissed African commentators who suggested that Europeans were not to blame. We saw such commentators as dishonest sellouts who were willing to accept the label of inferior, or worse, were doing it for money and possibly to keep a job.

But of course, Africans need not be threatened by the idea that there are other reasons beside European intervention for Africa’s backwardness. To examine one good (non-threatening) reason, we must first define underdevelopment in a way that everyone can understand and relate to.

We can define modern underdevelopment as a condition in which a majority of the people in a region live in grinding poverty, eking out a precarious existence either as slum-dwelling urbanites, or subsistence farmers,  or hunter-gatherers who hunt game and gather edibles from the forest. It is a condition in which many of the people are subject to the vagaries of nature, and lack the knowledge, technology, and industry to make their lives better with the improved productivity that creates better food supply and increases living standards. Such regions are often characterized by disorder, disorganization and conflict.

Modern development, its polar opposite, is a condition in which the people in a region have developed the production tools, organization, and innovative techniques to elevate productivity a thousand-fold to generate “a free lunch” 1 where wealth output far exceeds the cost and effort put into generating it.  The people in the region produce such vastly superfluous wealth that the incredible volume of excess products that they do not need or even want could be used to help the rest of the world live comfortably, and the volume of stuff they throw away as garbage is becoming a problem for such societies, and in some cases, the world. Such regions are characterized by stability, order and internal peace.

Walter Rodney has a definition—which I will tackle in later posts—that makes it easy for him to show development as a zero sum game in which one region progresses at the expense of another, or can only develop because it takes from one region and under-develops  another. 2 The problem with Rodney’s definition is that development that involves technological transformation and industrial growth—the sort of development that has occurred in the West, and is now transforming Asia—is not a zero sum process by any means, because due to its astonishing productivity, the manufacturing/ industrial process creates wealth far in excess of what is put into it.  And while one region may take from another, even to the point of exploitation, the evidence is that sometimes both regions end up hugely benefitting from development, e.g., Asia and the West (to be discussed in later posts). 3 [To be continued]


  1. The expression “there is no free lunch,” is a cliché of economics. But leading historian of technology Joel Mokyr turns it on its head by arguing that modern technology, with its stupendous productivity, has created a free lunch by taking humankind well beyond the drudgery of basic human and animal production that was rarely able to support increases in population. “Technological progress has been one of the most potent forces in history in that it has provided society with what economists call a ‘free lunch,’ that is, an increase in output that is not commensurate with the increase in effort and cost necessary to bring it about.” P 3, The Lever of Riches: Technological creativity and economic progress. Mokyr’s book, though difficult going in parts, is a profoundly insightful book on the history and ways in which technological progress can bring about miracles of production. He also writes, “The difference between the rich nations and the poor nations, is not, as Ernest Hemingway said, that the rich have more money than the poor, but that the rich nations produce more goods and services. One reason they can do this is because their technology is better….”
  2. Rodney writes in the section of his book titled “What is underdevelopment”: “At all times, therefore, one of the ideas behind underdevelopment is a comparative one. It is possible to compare the economic conditions at two different periods for the same country and determine whether or not it had developed; and (more importantly) it is possible to compare the economies of any two countries or sets of countries at any given period of time.

A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. African and Asian societies were developing independently until they were taken over directly or indirectly by the capitalist powers. When that happened, exploitation increased and the export of surplus ensued, depriving the societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labour.” pp 21-22 How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.

It is easy to see how this definition can appeal to Africans looking for a simple, emotionally satisfying reason why Europe is developed and Africa is not. “They stole all our stuff,” a friend once told me several years ago.

  1. In From Third World To First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000, former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew describes how his government assiduously wooed the supposed exploiters from the West, inviting Western multinational corporations to come and invest in Singapore. This move was widely panned by assorted leftists and nationalists from Africa to Asia, who predicted that inviting Western firms to Singapore was another form of colonization and exploitation, and thus was doomed to fail. Of course, we now know that it was a raging success, and Singapore went from a backward, corrupt, poverty-ridden underdeveloped country to one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

That the Chinese were deeply impressed by the Singapore example and emulated it is not in question. Lee reports that the Chinese leader, “Capitalist Roader” Deng Xiao Ping, visited Singapore in 1978, where after dinner, Lee basically told Deng that if Singapore could do it, so could China (p 601 From Third World). The following year, Deng made a speech where he said, “I went to Singapore to study how they utilized foreign capital. Singapore benefitted from factories set up by foreigners in Singapore: first, foreign enterprises paid 35 percent of their net profits in taxes which went to the state; second, labour income went to the workers; and third, it [foreign investment] generated the service sectors. All these were income…” (pp 602-603 From Third World).

The success of Singapore and China led other Asian countries to follow suit. In The Miracle: The epic story of Asia’s quest for wealth, business journalist Michael Schuman writes that “Asia’s choice to hitch onto the forces of globalization and ignore the prevailing economic wisdom is what caused the Miracle to happen….The Miracle showed that ‘the global economy was not, as so many ‘dependency’ theorists had claimed, rigged against latecomers,’ wrote economist Paul Krugman. ‘On the contrary, it offered the opportunity for countries…to achieve two centuries’ worth of economic progress in little more than a generation. And that discovery energized not only the Asians but capitalism in general.” (p xxviii)



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