What might sustain rapid development in Africa soon?

By | January 26, 2011

Expectation of rapid economic improvement soon in Africa seems counter-intuitive at this time, especially given Africa’s symbolic role as the negation of ‘white’ superiority. Black people have played this role for centuries as the stigmatized underclass of an unequal world society organized along racial lines; and never more than now, when American and European dominance is being undermined by a shift in the balance of economic power to countries like China, India, Brazi and, within its own region, South Africa. Rather than face up to a decline in their economic fortunes, the whites prefer to dwell on the misfortunes of black people and on Africa’s apparently terminal exclusion from modern prosperity. Failed politicians and aging rock stars, such as Blair and Bono, announce their mission to ‘save’ Africa from its presumed ills. The western media represent Africa as the benighted battleground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: famine, war, plague and death. It all goes to reassure a decadent West that at least some people are a lot worse off than themselves.

It is a curious fact that China occupied a similar slot in western consciousness not long ago. In the 1920s and 30s, Americans and Europeans often spoke of the Chinese the way they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is spoken of as the only one capable of standing up to the United States, while its manufactures make inroads into western dominance on a scale far greater than Japan’s ever did. This profound shift in economic power from West to East does not guarantee Africa’s escape from the shackles of inequality, but it does mean that structures of Atlantic dominance which once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that should make it easier to envisage change. We are entering a new phase of economic possibility, as well as altered patterns of constraint in world society.

Africa’s advantage in current upheavals is its weak attachment to the status quo. The world economy could easily regress to a condition similar to that of the 1930s. In this case, Africans have less to lose; and the old Stalinist ‘law of unequal development’ reminds us that, under such circumstances, winners and losers can easily change places. I like to tell my European friends who express concern about African poverty, “Don’t worry about them – they have only one way to go, which is up. You should be worried about your own decline.” This applies particularly to my own country, Britain, for whom postponing recognition of the loss of empire has become a way of life in itself. A recent poll reported that Africa has a higher proportion of hopeful people than anywhere else in the world, 30% if I recall. The New York Times couldn’t understand how this could be so, since everyone knows that Africa is the most hopeless place on earth. The idea of Africa as a basket case goes very deep.

To speak of a possible economic upturn begs the question of what Africa’s new urban populations could produce as a means of bringing about their own economic development. So far, African countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could. Minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed by the large number of poor farmers seeking entry. Conventionally, African governments have aspired to manufacturing exports 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 get a chance to supply their own populations first. But the world market for services is booming and perhaps greater opportunities for supplying national, regional and global markets exist there.

There was a time when most services were performed personally on the spot; but today, as a result of the digital revolution in communications, they increasingly link producers and consumers at distance. 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, once certain material requirements are satisfied, lies in the infinite scope for us to do things for each other — like 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. The United States’ three leading exports are now movies, music and software; and this is why they have sponsored an intellectual property treaty (TRIPs) that seeks to shore up the profits of corporations whose products can be reproduced digitally at almost no cost. The central conflict in contemporary capitalism is between this attempt to privatize the cultural commons and widespread popular resistance to it. Any move to enter this market will be confronted by transnational corporations and the governments who support them. Nevertheless, there is a lot more to play for here and the terrain is not as rigidly mapped out as in agriculture and manufactures. It is also one where Africans are exceptionally well-placed to compete because of the proven preference of global audiences for their music and plastic arts.

Why do you think Hollywood is where it is? A century ago, film-makers on the East Coast struggled under Thomas Edison’s monopolies of electrical products; so some of them escaped to the Far West and kicked off the movie industry with as little regulation as possible. For his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Walt Disney ripped off a Buster Keaton movie, ‘Steamboat Willie’. Now the Disney Corporation sues Chinese cartoonists for illegal appropriation of the Mickey Mouse logo. Did you know that the world’s second largest producer of movies, after Hollywood and before Bollywood, is Lagos in Nigeria (‘Nollywood’)? Most of their movies cost no more than $5,000, a pattern reminiscent of Hollywood when W.G. Griffith was king. American popular culture is still that country’s most successful export. There is no reason why it couldn’t be for Africans too.

Leave a Reply