The political economy of urbanization in contemporary Africa
Africa has become poorer in the last half-century, but, from being the most sparsely populated continent around 1900, Africa’s seventh of the world’s population now equals its share of the total land mass; and urbanization there is fast approaching the global average of around 50%. We need to understand this ‘urban revolution’ of unprecedented speed and scale; and specifically to identify how Africa’s urban economies might act as a springboard for economic development in the coming century. The continent is divided into three disparate regions — North, South and Middle (West, Central and East Africa); but a measure of convergence between them is now taking place.
A preoccupation with Africa’s post-colonial failure to ‘develop’ – or to ‘take-off’ — has obscured what really happened there in the twentieth century. The rise of cities has been accompanied by the formation of weak and venal states, locked into dependency on foreign powers and leaving the urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated spontaneous markets to meet their own needs and these have come to be understood as an ‘informal economy’. Whatever its value in bringing to light hitherto invisible economic activities, this concept is largely negative, focusing on whatever is not regulated by state bureaucracy and law. It tells us nothing about the social organization of these practices. In order to understand Africa’s twentieth-century experience – the extraordinary compression of contradictory social developments within a short period — we must first take a long view of the region’s divergence from the general historical trajectory of the Eurasian land mass.
Africa’s traditional societies and agrarian civilization
I distinguish between three broad types of social formation: ‘egalitarian societies’ based on kinship; ‘agrarian civilization’ in which urban elites control the mass of rural labour by means of the state and class power; and ‘national capitalism’, where markets and capital accumulation are regulated by central bureaucracies in the national interest. Although Africa south of the Sahara has a more complex history than can be captured neatly by this typology, its dominant institutions before the modern period may best be understood in terms of the classless type based on kinship institutions. The second type, agrarian civilization, covered most of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa for the last few millennia. National capitalism within Africa has only taken root so far in South Africa, until recently for the benefit of whites only. For a time after independence, Kenya was touted as coming capitalist power (Leys, Kitchin etc). This was never realised, but the country has remained a centre for commercial innovation. Middle Africa, particularly after independence, made a belated transition to the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, while Europe and North America, followed by much of Asia, embraced national capitalism. This brought North and Middle Africa closer together as pre-industrial class societies, while South Africa has drawn closer to the rest of Africa since the coming of majority rule.
Jack Goody (1976) has tried to explain how and why African societies diverged before the modern period from their counterparts in Europe and Asia. He concluded that all the agrarian civilizations of Eurasia shared a common origin in the ‘urban revolution’ of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago (Childe 1954). This pattern also extended to Egypt and the Mediterranean littoral long ago. By the eleventh century, Cairo was the hub of a mercantile civilization stretching from Spain to India. The rise of cities was accompanied by the formation of states whose function was to supervise a new kind of class society, in which a narrow urban elite extracted agricultural surpluses from an increasingly servile rural labour force. Goody showed how forms of kinship and marriage reflected property relations that were themselves made possible by more intensive technologies, such as the plough and irrigation. Sub-Saharan Africa, he held, had largely missed out on this urban revolution along with its agricultural technology, higher population density and unequal property relations. This accounts for why traditional African forms of kinship and marriage are so distinctive and their societies were, relatively speaking, classless. Even where a measure of stratification existed, redistribution through kinship institutions prevented the emergence of classes based on different styles of consumption.
The contrast between egalitarian societies built on kinship and unequal societies based on state power and class division goes back to L. H. Morgan (1877) and before him to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1754). It cannot be applied unambiguously to Africa and Eurasia before the modern age, even if we try to isolate Black Africa from its Northern and Southern extremities. The Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades generated coastal urban enclaves in both West and East Africa. The medieval civilization of the West African Sahel was a significant part of the Islamic world. Of the Yoruba agro-cities that emerged as a result of nineteenth-century warfare, Ibadan’s population had reached 200,000 by the onset of colonial rule. These examples of pre-colonial urbanization (Freund 2007) were rightly emphasized when the anti-colonial revolution delivered independence to most African countries from the 1950s.
Even so, large swathes of Middle Africa entered the modern era with a minimal urban population and the dominant institutions of their societies owed a lot more to kinship than to class differences. Indigenous states were commonplace in the early modern period, many of them emerging in response to the political, economic and demographic upheavals provoked by European imperial expansion. But, in a dozen volumes, Goody documents how most African societies south of the Sahara diverged from the pattern of agrarian civilization typical of pre-industrial Eurasia. This institutional pattern included territorial states, embattled cities, landed property, warfare, racism, bureaucratic administration, literacy, impersonal money, long-distance trade, work as a virtue, world religion and the nuclear family; and its grip on modern world society is still strong (Hart 2002), since national capitalism everywhere incorporated elements of the Old Regime.
Of course, if traditional African societies appeared to be more equal than their European counterparts, it does not mean that inequality was wholly absent there. Friedrich Engels (1884) made much of the progressive subordination of women, first in tribal societies of farmers and herders, later in pre-industrial states and finally in capitalist societies. A body of more recent Marxist and feminist scholarship (e.g. Meillassoux 1981) extended this analysis to the conflict between African males of different age, with polygamous elders commanding young men’s labour through control of access to marriageable women who were in their turn condemned to do most of the work without effective political representation. Gender and generation differences accordingly take on huge salience in African societies.
Africa’s urban revolution
In 1900, Africa probably had less than 2% of its inhabitants living in cities, under the global average before the industrial revolution. By 2000, a sustained population explosion has seen the urban share rise to almost half, compressing into one century what took twice as long elsewhere and from a much more rural base. Since Africa’s population is still growing much faster than other regions at 2.5% per annum, so too is its relative size in the world, if not yet its purchasing power (around 2% of the world economy). In short, Africa experienced in the twentieth century its own version of an urban revolution that it had largely avoided before. This means not just the unprecedented proliferation of cities, but also that the whole package of pre-industrial class society was installed there more or less for the first time: states, new urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a political economy based on the extraction of rural surpluses. Any strategy for African development now must build on the social conditions that came into being when nominally independent nation-states were built on an economic foundation of pre-industrial agriculture (Hart 1982).
The anti-colonial revolution unleashed extravagant hopes for the transformation of an unequal world. These have not yet been realized for most Africans who are still waiting for political forms that will guarantee their full participation as equals in world society. By most accounts African economies have not fared well since independence. But the model of development they were expected to adopt was ‘national capitalism’, the attempt to manage markets and accumulation through central bureaucracies with the general interest of citizens in mind. Development in this sense never had a chance to take root in Africa. For the first half century, African peoples were shackled by colonial empire and in the second, their new nations struggled to keep afloat in a world economy organized by and for the major powers, then engaged in the Cold War.
The assumption was that a change in ownership of the state would deliver economic development to African peoples, regardless of conditions in the world at large. Frantz Fanon took a different view. In The Wretched of the Earth, written from the depths of Algeria’s own anti-colonial struggle, he spoke prophetically of the “pitfalls of national consciousness” which would undermine Africa’s post-colonial states and especially of the weakness of the new middle class who led them:
From the beginning the national bourgeoisie directs its efforts towards (economic) activities of the intermediary type. The basis of its strength is found in its aptitude for trade and small business enterprises, and for securing commissions. It is not its money that works, but its business acumen. It does not go in for investments and it cannot achieve that accumulation of capital necessary to the birth and blossoming of an authentic bourgeoisie (Fanon  1970:144)
In other words, Africa’s new leaders thought they were generating modern economies, with ambitions for public expenditure to match, but in reality they were erecting fragile states whose economic base was the same backward agriculture as before. As Fanon predicted, this weakness inexorably led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy of the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers. These ruling elites first relied on revenues from agricultural exports, then on loans contracted under dubious circumstances, finally on the financial monopoly that came from being licensed to supervise their country’s relations with global capitalism. But this bonanza was switched off in the 1980s, when foreign capital felt that it could dispense with the mediation of local state powers and concentrated on collecting debts from them. Many governments were made bankrupt and some simply collapsed into civil war.
It is hardly surprising that hopes for African democracy soon flew out of the window, to be replaced by a norm of dictatorship, whether civil or military. Concentration of political power at the centre led to primate urbanization, as economic demand became synonymous with the expenditures of a presidential kleptocracy. Political scientists have long written of the patrimonial norm for African states without pushing the analysis far or deep enough [ref]. The growth of cities should normally lead to an expanded level of rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services with the proceeds (Steuart 1767). But this progressive division of labour was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of cheap subsidized food from North America and Europe and of cheap manufactures from Asia. For “structural adjustment” meant that African national economies had no protection from the strong winds of world trade. The result was that a peasantry subjected to political extraction and violence was forced to choose between stagnation at home and migration to the main cities or abroad. Somehow the cities survived on the basis of markets that emerged spontaneously to recycle the money concentrated at the top and to meet the population’s needs for food, shelter, clothing and transport. As Fanon pointed out, there is no shortage of business acumen, just of capital. These markets are the key to understanding the economic potential of Africa’s urban revolution.
Urban commerce and the informal economy
The idea of an informal economy came out of the lives of poor African city-dwellers. After the modernization boom of the 1960s, the notion that poor countries could become rich by emulating “us” gave way to gloomier scenarios, fed by zero-sum theories of underdevelopment, dependency and “the world system” (Wallerstein 1974). In development policy-making circles, this trend manifested itself as fear of “Third World urban unemployment.” It was noted that cities there were growing rapidly, but without comparable growth in jobs, conceived of as regular employment by government and the corporations. At this time, it was universally believed that only the state could lead an economy towards development and growth. There were a few liberal economists around, but their influence on policy was minimal. The question was therefore: how are “we” (the bureaucracy and its academic advisors) going to provide the people with the jobs, health, housing etc that they need? And what will happen if we don’t? The spectre of urban riots and even revolution raised its head. Anyone who visited these sprawling cities, however, would see a rather different picture. Their streets were teeming with life, a constantly shifting crowd of hawkers, porters, taxi-drivers, beggars, pimps, pickpockets, hustlers – all of them getting by without the benefit of a “real job.”
There was no shortage of names for this kind of early-modern street economy. Terms like “underground,” “unregulated,” “hidden,” “black” and “second” economies abounded. Clifford Geertz’ (1963) analysis of entrepreneurship in Indonesia was exemplary. The majority of a town’s inhabitants were occupied in a street economy that he labelled “bazaar-type.” In contrast, the “firm-type” economy consisted largely of western corporations who benefited from the protection of state law. These had form in Weber’s (1981) sense of “rational enterprise,” substituting calculation for speculation and above all minimizing risk. National bureaucracy lent these firms a measure of protection from competition, thereby allowing the systematic accumulation of capital. The bazaar on the other hand was individualistic and competitive, so that accumulation was well-nigh impossible. According to Geertz, some Reform Muslim entrepreneurs were rational and calculating enough; but they were denied the institutional protection of state bureaucracy granted to the existing corporations. He pointed out the irony of a neoclassical economics that studies the decisions of individuals in competitive markets like the bazaar, while treating as anomalous the dominant monopolies protected by state bureaucracy. The discipline found this model in the late nineteenth century, when a bureaucratic revolution was transforming mass production and distribution along corporate lines. At the same time the more powerful states awarded new privileges to big corporations and society took its modern form as national capitalism.
My paper, “Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana,” was written for a 1971 conference (Hart 1973). Before it was published, an International Labour Office report (ILO 1972) launched the idea of an “informal sector” in Kenya. I argued that Accra’s poor were not “unemployed.” They worked, often casually, for erratic and generally low returns; but they were definitely working. What distinguished these self-employed earnings from wage employment was the degree of rationalization of working conditions (Weber 1978). An ability to stabilize economic returns within a bureaucratic form made them more calculable and regular for the workers as well as for their bosses. That stability was in turn guaranteed by the state’s laws, which only extended so far into the depths of Ghana’s economy. “Formal” incomes came from regulated economic activities and “informal” incomes, both legal and illegal, lay beyond regulation. I did not identify the informal economy with a place or a class or even whole persons. Everyone in Accra, but especially in the slums, tried to combine the two sources of income. Informal opportunities ranged from market gardening and brewing through every kind of trade to gambling, theft and political corruption. My focus was on what people generated out of the circumstances of their everyday lives. The laws and offices of state bureaucracy only made their search for self-preservation and improvement more difficult.
The ILO Kenya report suggested that self-employed or informal incomes might reduce the gap between those with and without jobs and so could contribute to a more equitable income distribution than was apparent from official statistics. Following a shift in World Bank policy, they advocated “growth with redistribution,” that is, helping the poor out of the proceeds of economic expansion. By now the multilateral institutions were worried about potential social explosions. A vogue for promoting the informal sector as a source of employment creation — in the most optimistic scenario capable of lifting a poor economy by the bootstraps — took off in the 70s. The dominant paradigm of development was still Keynesian and it was still assumed to be the state’s responsibility.
My aim was to insert a concrete description of irregular economic activity into the ongoing debates of professionals in the development industry. The ILO Kenya report, however, did set out to coin a concept, ‘the informal sector’, and it subsequently became a keyword organizing a new segment of the academic and policy-making bureaucracy. So the idea of an informal economy could be said to have had a double provenance that reflected its two sides: bureaucracy (the ILO report) and the people (an urban ethnography). Its association with the sprawling slums of Third World cities was strong at this time. Less attention was paid then to my observation that the commanding heights of the informal economy lay at the centres of political power, in the corrupt fortunes of public office-holders who often owned the taxis or the housing operated by the small fry.
The informal economy in development discourse
The “informal economy” is the antithesis of “national capitalism” or rather of its intellectual arm, “macroeconomics”. Beginning as a way of conceptualizing the unregulated activities of the marginal poor in Third World cities, the informal sector became recognized as a universal feature of the modern economy. Independence from the state’s rules unites practices as diverse as home improvement, street trade, squatter settlements, open source software, illegal drugs trafficking, political corruption, and offshore banking. Most economists have approached the informal economy in quantitative terms as a sector of small-scale, low-productivity, low-income activities without benefit of advanced machines, whereas I stress the reliability of income streams and the presence or absence of bureaucratic form.
The 1980s saw a major shift in world economy following the lead of Reagan and Thatcher. The state was no longer seen as the great provider. Rather “the market”, freed from as many encumbrances as possible, was the only engine of growth. The informal economy was reinvented as a zone of free commerce, competitive because unregulated. This coincided with the imposition of structural adjustment policies aiming to reduce public expenditures and throwing responsibility onto the invisible self-help schemes of the people themselves. By now, the rhetoric and reality of development had been effectively abandoned as the poor countries suffered the largest income drain in their history, through repayment of debts incurred during the wild banking boom of the 1970s.
What happened next could never have been anticipated around 1970: in the name of the free market, deregulation of national capitalism led to the radical informalization of world economy. Money went offshore and banking was increasingly unsupervised; corporations outsourced and downsized, in the process making work more casual and precarious; public functions were privatized; the drugs and illicit arms trades took off; the global war over intellectual property became the main site of capitalist struggle; and whole countries, such as Mobutu’s Zaire, abandoned any pretence of formality in their economic affairs. Today, illegal drugs are the most valuable commodity traded internationally. Finance, until recently, slipped out of its political shackles. The armaments industry became the corrupt core of western governments. Grey markets for goods imitating well-known brands and unlicensed reproductions were labelled “piracy”. The irrational borders of nation-states are riddled with smuggling.
The informal economy is now considered to be a feature of the industrial countries too, ranging from domestic do-it-yourself to the criminal economy of disaffected youth. Even before the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was clear that the command economy had spawned a flourishing black market, antecedent of the criminal mafias and oligarchs who now dominate the Russian economy. In Europe, the dissident left has long had a slogan: “Think red, work black, vote green.” Meanwhile, the collapse of the state in many Third World countries has led to the whole economy becoming informal. In many parts of Africa soldiers loot at will, while politicians fill foreign bank accounts. Or take Jamaica, which in the 1970s was a model “middle-income” developing economy. At one point the value of illegal marijuana sales was higher than the country’s three leading legitimate industries (tourism, bauxite and garments) taken together. No wonder politics was carried out by armed gangsters and youths left school early to learn hustling on the street.
Meanwhile, the attitude of international agencies towards informality changed. There is now substantial inward investment in some poor countries and foreign businesses feel the lack of an effective regulatory environment. This means boosting national bureaucracies which were deliberately undermined by structural adjustment. Now the call is for regulation and standardization. This is partly to secure a measure of economic order within particular countries; but transnational corporations and the international agencies also have a need for standardization between countries, so that they don’t have to adapt procedures to local circumstances every time. Clearly national and local institutions are now becoming globalized. Informality is often seen as a threat to private sector development. Business corporations are undercut by informal operators who pay no taxes, evade costly regulations and take advantage of numerous devices, legal and illegal, to reduce their prices. Accordingly, whereas the informal economy was once seen as a positive factor in development, it is now more likely to be represented as an obstacle. Today the model of success for the world’s ruling elites is still the highly bureaucratic type of economy achieved by Western countries only in the second half of the twentieth century (De Soto 2000).
The dialectics of form
How might African governments encourage the evolution of the ‘informal economy’ towards more dynamic forms of urban commerce? ‘Form’ is the rule, an idea of what ought to be universal in social life; and for most of the twentieth century the dominant forms were those of bureaucracy, particularly national bureaucracy. The idea of an ‘informal economy’ is entailed in the institutional effort to organize society along formal lines. The twentieth century saw a general experiment in impersonal society that anchored bureaucracy in state-made laws carrying the threat of punishment. The dominant bureaucratic forms were conventionally divided according to ownership into public and private sectors. This uneasy alliance of governments and corporations is now sometimes classified as “the formal sector.” Ostensibly, they share conformity to the rule of law.
The formal and informal economies appear to be separate entities because of the use of the term “sector”. This gives the impression that the two are located in different places, like agriculture and manufacturing, whereas both the bureaucracy and its antithesis contain the formal/informal dialectic within as well as between them. There is a widespread perception of a class war between the bureaucracy and the people. It was not supposed to be like this. Modern bureaucracy was invented as part of a democratic political project to give citizens equal access to what was theirs as a right. It still has the ability to coordinate public services on a scale that is beyond the reach of individuals and most groups. And that is good enough reason to explore ways of linking the two more effectively. Many economic practices appear to be informal because their forms are largely invisible to the bureaucratic gaze. How then might non-conformist economic activities relate to the formal order? In four ways: as division, content, negation and residue.
The moral economy of capitalist societies is based on the attempt to keep impersonal and personal spheres of social life separate (Hart 2005). The establishment of a formal public sphere entailed creating another one based on domestic privacy. The two constitute complementary halves of a single whole. Most people divide themselves every day between production and consumption, paid and unpaid work, submission to impersonal rules in the office and the free play of personality at home. Money links the two sides; their interaction is an endless process of separation and integration, division. The division of the sexes into male and female is the master metaphor for this dialectic of complementary unity.
For any rule to be translated into human action, something else must be brought into play, such as personal judgment. Informality is built into bureaucratic forms as unspecified content. Viable solutions to administrative problems always contain processes invisible to the formal order. For example, workers sometimes engage in a “work-to-rule”. They follow their job descriptions to the letter without any of the informal practices that allow these abstractions to function. Everything grinds to a halt. Or take a chain of commodities from production by a transnational corporation to final consumption in Africa. At several points, from the factories to the docks to the supermarkets and on the street, invisible actors fill gaps the bureaucracy cannot handle directly. Informal processes are indispensable to the trade.
Of course, some activities break the law, through a breach of health and safety regulations, tax evasion, smuggling, the use of child labour, selling without a license and so on. The third way that informal activities relate to formal organization is as its negation. Rule-breaking takes place both within bureaucracy and outside it; and so the informal is often illegal. This compromises attempts to promote the informal sector as a legitimate economic sphere, since it is hard to draw a line between colourful women selling oranges on the street and the gangsters (not to mention policemen!) who exact tribute from them. When the rule of law is weak, the forms that emerge in its place are often criminal in character.
The fourth category is not so obviously related to the formal order as the rest. Some informal activities exist in parallel, as residue. They are separate from bureaucracy. It would be stretching the logic of the formal/informal pair to include peasant economy, housework and so on within the rubric of “informality”. Yet the social forms endemic to these often shape informal economic practices and vice versa. Is society just one thing – one state with its rule of law – or can it tolerate legal pluralism, leaving some institutions to their own devices? European empires, faced with scarce administrative resources, once turned to “indirect rule” as a way of incorporating subject peoples into their systems of government on a semi-autonomous basis (Mamdani 1996). Supervision of indigenous customary forms was delegated to appointed chiefs and headmen, reserving the key levers of power to the colonial regime. Anthropologists played their part in this (Asad 1973). Any serious attempt to link formal and informal economies today would require a similar openness to plural forms.
On the usefulness of informality
Africa cannot afford a development model based only on the West’s bureaucratic societies and the ‘informal economy’ is a bureaucratic concept. I have often wondered if it has advanced or retarded our understanding of development. The first criticism of the concept is that it is insufficiently dynamic. This might be because in the Cold War we lived under the threat of a nuclear holocaust (Hart 1992). No-one wanted the two sides to move, since all life on the planet might then be placed in jeopardy. In any case, the sides did move – at several levels. So another criticism is that the label “informal” says what these activities are not, but not what they are. For a development policy involving both sides, it will not do to lump everything together in a catchall phrase whose chief virtue is that it allows bureaucrats to claim they understand what they never could. We need rather to expose the positive principles organizing the informal economy and to place them within a suitably broad historical framework. This is not to deny that there are political and analytical uses for the idea, particularly within international bureaucracies, such as lobbying for women’s rights and conditions of work (WIEGO), as well as intellectual uses that continue to generate important empirical work in Africa, India and elsewhere.
It has never been resolved whether the informal economy refers to casual labour in formal enterprises or not. This has become more pressing in the context of widespread deregulation, as outlined above. Neoliberal economic policies since the1980s fostered massive informalization of national and global economies, by reducing state controls and promoting the gigantic flows of credit and debt known as “the markets.” Extension of the scope of informality to embrace rich and poor countries, government and business, casual labor and the self-employed, corruption and crime, when taken with the wholesale devolution of central bureaucracies compared with forty years ago, leaves a question-mark over its continuing usefulness today.
The label “informal” may be popular because it is both positive and negative. To act informally is to be free and flexible; but it also refers to what people are not doing – not wearing conventional dress, not being regulated by the state. The informal economy allows academics and bureaucrats to incorporate the teeming street life of exotic cities into their abstract models without having to know what people are really doing. The idea lends the appearance of conceptual unity to whatever goes on outside the bureaucracy. Fearing its own isolation in a “planet of slums” (Davis 2006), the bureaucracy oscillates between offering partnership to the informals and hounding them off the streets. We need to know how formal bureaucracy works in practice and, even more important, what social forms have emerged to organize the informal economy. It is now time to examine the institutional particulars sustaining whatever takes place beyond the law.
This brings me back to the categories of relations between formal and informal economies. Division: The idea of interdependent, but separate halves of a social whole – in this case, the formal-informal dualism — is intrinsic to much development discourse. It is at best a way of launching discourse and soon limits critical enquiry. Content: If informality is often the unspecified content of abstract forms, this favours accepting the legitimacy of many informal practices and leaving more to people’s imagination. Negation: When the state is weak, the informal is often also illegal. The obvious response is to crack down on rule-breakers; but in general such initiatives are unsystematic and merely cosmetic. The biggest offenders escape and the law is made an ass. The number of legal offences could profitably be reduced, if existing regulation is ineffective. Residue: Governments might fruitfully adopt a hands-off approach towards semi-autonomous communities within their jurisdiction. But administrative decentralization poses a threat to weak states. These considerations, taken together, provide an abstract framework for thinking about how bureaucracy and the people might enter a new partnership for development. Nowhere is this issue more pressing than in Africa, where the question is largely one of organizing the urban informal economy as a launching pad for sustained economic growth in the coming decades.
The future of African urban commerce
Africa’s urban informal economy everywhere supplies food, housing and transport; education, health and other basic services; mining, manufactures and engineering; and trade at every level, including transnational commerce and foreign exchange. But its scope varies between the continent’s regions. In West/Central Africa, where white settlement was minimal, the cities were substantially an indigenous creation and their markets were always unregulated. Foreign middlemen like the Lebanese minority flourished largely outside colonial administrative controls. The great ports of the Atlantic seaboard enjoy a degree of mercantile freedom that ensures they will play an important part in Africa’s commercial growth. Today Angolan women jump on planes heading for London, Paris, Dubai and Rio, where they stock up on luxury goods for resale in the streets of Luanda. In Southern Africa, and to a lesser extent the East and North, cities were built by a white settler class who often imposed strict controls on the movement and activities of the indigenous population. The informal economy in South Africa today is distinctive in being hedged in by rules designed to promote modern industry. Elsewhere, in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and even in Kenya, the state has long played a more controlling role than would be considered normal today in Lagos, Cotonou or Dakar.
The state’s relationship to economy has been transformed since independence. African nation-states have learned the hard way that they are not free to choose their own forms of political economy. When the world was divided between the Rooseveltian consensus and the Soviet bloc in the first three decades after 1945 (what the French call les trente glorieuses), state ownership of production and control of distribution seemed to offer the best chance of defending the national interest against colonial and neo-colonial predators. After the 70s, the mania for privatization led to ownership being ceded to individual corporations, often with a colonial past. Structural adjustment forced governments to abandon public service provision, to lay off many workers and to allow the free circulation of commodities and money. In the Congo, Angola, Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, failed states and civil wars encouraged informal mining and trade, concentrating wealth and power in the hands of warlords and their followers. The restoration of peace in some areas usually came with the return of limited bureaucratic controls over distribution. The situation is highly dynamic and variable.
Tax collection in Africa never attained the regularity it has long achieved in Europe and Asia. Cathérine Coquéry-Vidrovitch once claimed that an ‘African mode of production’ was based on seizing revenues from long-distance trade rather than producing for local consumption. But this could be said of most pre-industrial states; and it is a measure of Africa’s failure to adopt the model of ‘national capitalism’ that governments still rely on whatever resources they can extract from the import-export trade. The new urban classes that have arisen to control and live off these revenues, usually under a patrimonial regime propped up by foreign powers, constitute an Old Regime ripe for liberal revolution.
The use of a term like ‘patrimonialism’ reminds us that the new states and class structures of Africa’s urban revolution are entangled in kinship systems that remain indispensable to any understanding of how the informal economy works as social organization. The recruitment of dependents from ‘home’ allows the new urban middle classes to pass off exploitation of cheap labour as an egalitarian model of African kinship. Formal bureaucracy, on the other hand, is hostile to kinship, since the institution originated in the early modern drive to escape from a society based on personal relations. In that public context kinship is normally viewed as corruption. On the other hand, ‘family business’ has never lost favour and child labour is still acceptable there, if not when employed by transnational corporations. In the absence of a welfare state, Africans must rely on kinship to see them through the life cycle of birth, marriage, childrearing, old age and death; and this reinforces the traditional power of elders in the face of rural-urban migration on the part of youth and women.
To speak of economic growth in the future begs the question of what Africa’s new urban populations could produce. So far, African countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could. Minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and rising 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. 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 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 films, music and software. 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. Africans are also exceptionally well-placed to compete here because of global audiences’ proven preference of 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 there with as little regulation as possible. For his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Walt Disney ripped off a Buster Keaton movie, ‘Steamboat Willie’ (not to mention Aesop’s fables). Now the Disney Corporation sues Chinese cartoonists for illegal appropriation of the Mickey Mouse logo. The world’s third largest producer of movies (some would say the second) is now 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, if they can solve problems of transnational payment that have hitherto eluded them.
Africa must escape soon from varieties of Old Regime that owe a lot to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid; but conditions there can no longer be attributed solely to these ancient causes. The example of earlier commercial revolutions, reinforced by endogenous developments in economy, technology, religion and the arts, could offer fresh solutions for African underdevelopment. It has long been acknowledged that the rise of capitalism in Europe drew heavily on religion as one of its motors. Max Weber (1981) insisted that an economic revolution of this scope could only take root through a much broader cultural revolution. If Africa’s informal economy has the potential to evolve into a more dynamic engine of urban commerce, what might be the cultural grounds for such a development? The basis for Africa’s future economic growth must be the cultural production of its cities. This in turn rests on:
1. The energy of youth and women
2. The religious revival
3. The explosion of the modern arts
4. The communications revolution
5. The new African diaspora linked to sub-national identities
1. African societies, traditional and modern, have been dominated by older men. Women have benefited less from their opportunities and are less tied to their burdens. In many cases they have been quicker to exploit the commercial freedoms of the neoliberal international economy. Even when men and boys have plunged whole countries into civil war, thereby removing state guarantees from economic life, an informal economy resting on women’s trade has often kept open basic supply lines. The social reality of Africa’s cities is a young population without enough to do and a growing generation gap. The energies of youth must be harnessed more effectively and the chances of doing so are greater if the focus of economic development is on something that interests them, like popular culture.
2. The religious revival in Africa — Christian, Muslim and traditional — has immense significance for economic development. This is often founded on young people’s rejection of the social models and political options offered by their parents’ generation. Fundamentalist and less extreme varieties of religion make a different kind of connection to world society than that offered by the nation-state, based on the assumption of American dominance or of its opposite. They help to fill the moral void of contemporary politics and often offer well-tried recipes for creative economic organization. Christian churches are usually organized and supported by women, even if their leadership is often male.
3. In all the talk of poverty, war and AIDS, the western media rarely report the extraordinary vitality of the modern arts in post-colonial Africa: novels, films, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, dance and their application in commercial design. There has been an artistic explosion in the last half-century, drawing on traditional sources, but also responding to the complexity of the contemporary world. One recent example is the ‘Africa Remix’ exhibition that toured Europe and Japan, a hundred installations from Johannesburg to Cairo, showing the modernity of contemporary African art. The African novel, along with comparable regions like India, leads the world. I have already mentioned the creativity of the film industry.
4. Africa largely missed the first two phases of the machine revolution, based on the steam engine and electric grids; but the third phase, the digital revolution in communications whose most tangible product is the internet, offers Africans very different conditions of participation that they are already taking up avidly. In origin a means of communication for scientists and the military, the internet is now primarily a global marketplace with very unusual characteristics. Like the informal economy, it goes largely unregulated; but this market freedom is harnessed to the most advanced technologies of our era. The internet has also generated new conditions for managing networks spanning home and abroad by radically shortening the time taken by communication and exchange at distance. The extraordinarily rapid adoption of mobile phones has made Africa a worldwide crucible for innovation, such as the first multi-national network in East Africa and the use of phones there for purposes of banking, dealing and circulating price information. Nor should we neglect the role of television as a transnational means of widening perceptions of community.
5. In the last half-century a new African diaspora has emerged, based on economic migration to America, Europe and nowadays Asia. These migrants are usually known away from home by their national identity, but many of them by-pass the national level when maintaining close relationships with their specific regions of origin. They are often highly educated, with experience of the corporate business world, while retaining links to relatives living in the informal economy at home. One consequence of neoliberal reforms has been that transnational exchange is now much easier, drawing at once on indigenous knowledge of local conditions and the expertise acquired by migrants and their families in the West. Remittances from abroad are of immense importance and are bound to play a major role in Africa’s economic future.
How might these separate factors generate sustainable forms of enterprise capable of raising African economies to new levels? Economic success is always a contingent synthesis of existing and new conditions. There is no one model of successful enterprise, just many stories of economic innovation waiting to be discovered by those who will look. Thus the Mourides, a Sufist order founded almost a century ago, constitute an informal state with the state of Senegal (Cruise O’Brien). Their international trading operations are capable of influencing national economies, as when they recently shifted shoe supplies to the USA from Italy to China. A similar network of North African Muslims has been running cars and car parts illegally from Europe to Africa through Marseille on such a scale that the French car industry moved some of its production South to meet the demand. Pioneering communications enterprises in Kenya and Ghana are beginning to be noticed for their exciting ability to tailor modern technologies to local demand. The Nollywood phenomenon offers morality plays to global audiences at an affordable price. We might do well by trying to understand this development.
Conclusion: a key moment in economic history
It is a truism that the global economic crisis of 2008-9 has brought with it another swing in the balance between state and market comparable to that which took place in the watershed of the 1970s. An erstwhile spokesman for neo-liberal markets like South Africa’s Trevor Manuel can now announce a revival of public planning within strong state institutions. The prospects of a new deal enabling some sort of transition from what has been called Africa’s urban informal economy to sustained commercial growth is thus highly moot. Just as structural adjustment in the 80s opened up space for small traders at the expense of the ‘bureaucratic bourgeoisie’, it would be surprising if the present moment did not entail a crackdown on ‘informality’, with a renewed emphasis on tax collection and the funding of public enterprises. There are precedents, however, for a more friendly approach on the part of governments. Thus President Chiluba of Zambia established a street vendors’ desk in his office and removed some of the bureaucratic obstacles affecting at least this sector. At the other extreme, South Africa’s attempt to produce ‘world-class’ cities for the 2010 soccer World Cup has unleashed a bureaucratic war against informal traders and transport operators, exacerbated in some cases by the targeting of foreigners in so-called xenophobic riots. Informal operators have often been quicker to use mobile phones and other information technologies for purposes of transnational trade than bureaucratic firms. It would be a pity if this spin-off from neo-liberalism were stifled by a new dirigisme. I do not offer here predictions of likely scenarios in the coming decades. Rather I have sought to illuminate the development possibilities thrown up in Africa during the second half of the twentieth century by the historical pattern of rapid urbanization, informal market growth and the formation of states resembling Europe’s Old Regime.