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Africa: Sustainable Development for All? Why sub-Saharan Africa and what is development? Step 1.9: A

Africa: Sustainable Development for All?

Africa: Sustainable Development for All? Why sub-Saharan Africa and what is development? Step 1.9: A historical

Why sub-Saharan Africa and what is development?

Step 1.9: A historical perspective

ANDREW DILLEY: The image of sankofa from the Akan people of West Africa teaches that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back as the bird is doing and gather the best of what our past has to teach us so that we can achieve our full potential in the present and future.

Let me now outline the colonial period and its legacies for the present. Colonial rule is often understood in two basic and simplistic ways. One argument, recently popularised by Niall Ferguson of Harvard University, argues that not withstanding the violence of colonialism, that colonial rule was, on balance, beneficial, spreading modernising institutions, improved infrastructure, and integration into the world economy. A second school of thought, classically expressed in Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, holds that colonial rule was exploitative and left a legacy of weak states, knocking sub-Saharan Africa into the production of low value primary products.

Between these stark alternatives many scholars have noted the contradictory impacts of colonial rule. Colonial regimes varied too greatly and affected diverse groups in different locations so differently that it's hard to create meaningful balance sheets of empire. Colonial rule did not originate in a grand project of development or of exploitation. Its legacies, while powerful, are more complex than the simplistic polemics imply.

Most of Africa was partitioned amongst seven European colonial powers in the late 19th century,
Most of Africa was partitioned amongst seven European colonial powers in the late 19th century,

Most of Africa was partitioned amongst seven European colonial powers in the late 19th century, scramble for Africa. Historians continue to debate why this happened, but it's clear that the partition was a piecemeal process driven by a complex mixture of economic self-interest, strategic and diplomatic calculations, and philanthropic concerns. Often, the aspirations of ambitious European men-on- the-spot pulled European states to make claims. Notoriously, King Leopold of the Belgians, was able to carve out a personal empire in the Congo basin, while modern Zambia and Zimbabwe originated as personal fiefdoms of the British born South African mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes, a man who became a symbol of British imperialism in Africa.

International conferences, most famously the 1884 Berlin Conference, established international rules to manage the competing claims of European powers, drawing boundaries and creating states. Through this process the familiar political map of modern Africa took shape, at best with passing reference to pre-colonial reality. Early colonial states were not governed by any grand scheme. A few were nakedly exploitative. King Leopold's Congo deployed extreme violence to extract profitable rubber from the jungles of the region until its briefly excesses were curbed by international pressure in 1909. However, for most colonial administrators the main goal was simply to perpetuate colonial rule itself.

The governance of colonial status was shaped by two contradictory impulses, each leaving important legacies. On the one hand, very few Europeans were sent to govern and settle in tropical African colonies, excepting South Africa, south Rhodesia, and Kenya. As one British government official report put it, "To set down two or three British officials at an outstation to rule 100,000 natives, with a

handful of police to keep order, is a customary British risk needed to maintain stability

handful of police to keep order, is a customary British risk needed to maintain stability and to do so at a low cost with very small numbers of people."

As a result, they usually formed alliances with traditional rural elites, who often found their power enhanced if they cooperated with colonial rulers. As a result of this approach, Mahmood Mamdani has argued that colonial states produced what he called decentralised despotisms which left weak, divided states. On the other hand, colonial powers did not wish to spend significant resources on the colonies, thus colonial states had to pay their way to establish tax bases and develop exports to earn currency.

Across the continent, European states introduced systems of taxation and required taxes to be paid in European currency. Some African societies responded by increasing production, either for export or for local markets, others laboured for European employers such as plantations, ports, mines, and other European businesses. Often undertaking such labour for European ex-patriot businesses involved long distance migration.

While many areas of the continent had already engaged in global trade, the economics of colonisation accentuated Africa's integration into the world economy, particularly as a producer of primary products. Production for the market and migrant labour altered African societies and economies, promoting urbanisation and shifting power, even as colonial states sought to govern through and shore up traditional rural hierarchies.

Whatever the realities, imperial powers produced justifications for their rule based on notions of development, or to put it in 19th century language, ideas about the civilising mission. Each power had its own version of the civilising mission. One British administrator in Nigeria, Lord Frederick Lugard, argued that British rule possessed a dual mandate to benefit Africans and to ensure African resources benefited the world. French colonialism claimed to pursue assimilation to the universal values of French republicanism. Ideas about the civilising mission, however they were articulated, were all rooted in an assumption that colonial subjects could only progress through outside intervention, often based in ideas of racial hierarchy and European superiority.

In Britain these ideas became widespread through the campaign against slavery. The famous "Am I Not a Man and a Brother" badge portrays an African begging salvation from Europeans. These ideas of superiority and that development in Africa can only come from outside again constitute one of the most problematic

legacies of the colonial period for 21st century sustainable international development. From the 1940s this

legacies of the colonial period for 21st century sustainable international development. From the 1940s this changed. Some historians have written of a second colonial occupation in the '40s and '50s.

Colonial powers began in this period, through welfare and developed acts, to spend significant resources deliberately seeking to foster economic development. The dual mandate remained in play. The goals were both to benefit Africans by expanding their incomes and to benefit European states desperate for raw materials and dollar earnings in the wake of the Second World War. The approach was top down. European knowledge and capital were applied to projects to improve infrastructure, agricultural practise, and other areas of economic activity. The level of intervention far outpaced anything seen prior to 1939.

The outcomes, however, were mixed. Many schemes fails and many, through their intervention in African societies, fed nationalist challenges to colonial rule. The underlying assumptions of many of these projects, that development would come through exports and big investments in infrastructure managed by Europeans on the basis of supposedly superior knowledge, bears a closer look.