Few studies of the continent leave much room for hope. Again and
again we read that Africa is collapsing and turning into "a school
for the ills of humanity" (1). The image of a shipwrecked continent,
repeated ad nauseam, seems to sum up the perception of Africa -
synonymous with poverty, corruption and fraud; the home of violence,
conflict and genocide. We are assailed with apocalyptic images of an
"impoverished Africa in a spiral of conflict" (2). As the century
draws to a close, we are told that "no continent offers such a
spectacle of desolation, war and famine as Africa. Slowly, the place
is going to the dogs" (3).
The paradigm of bankruptcy has become the context for every
analysis of modern Africa's economic and social history, with the
stress on the blind alleys of what is conventionally termed
development. As Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch remarks, "we are in a
period of cumulative crisis" (4), which she defines both as a crisis
in the processes of development in the Southern hemisphere and a
crisis of a world where interdependence is fast becoming inescapable.
A crisis in the development models and ideologies underlying
countries' policies and structures. A crisis of know-how as the
fields of development break up and theory proves to be out of step
with poorly analysed reality. Samir Amin evokes the same general
picture: "The 1960s were marked by the great hope that we were at the
start of an irreversible process of development throughout the third
world, and especially Africa. But ours has become the age of
disenchantment. Development is at a standstill, its theory is in
crisis, its ideology in doubt. It is generally agreed that
development in Africa is bankrupt" (5).
And yet, was the decolonisation of the 1960s not to have been the
harbinger of progress? Was not the green revolution supposed to put
an end to famine? Was it not the aim of the aid organisations to
promote "integrated", "autocentric", "endogenous", "participatory",
"community" development? How many destitute regions, now the vast
graveyards of projects and programmes costing billions of dollars,
have seen streams of "cooperators", "experts" or "technical
assistants", advice to Africa having become something of an
Pessimism about Africa is standing in the way of any political
analysis of the problems of development. It constantly diverts
Western opinion by reproducing the stereotypes of colonial ethnology.
In these days of all-pervading revisionism, it is no doubt convenient
to remove any reference to the structures and effects of domination.
But they are with us again, nevertheless, as the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank strangle Africa, forcing it to
dismantle its production systems and its states (6). Georges
Balandier rightly says that "the powerlessness of the third world is
maintained by the inequalities and dependence on which those
countries base their power and, for the time being, hold on to it"
Unflinching powers of resistance
As if to stifle the debate on the violence caused by the
increasing role of money in African societies, barrack-room
anthropologists are going back to the old litanies of "cultural
obstacles to development": if the producers of cocoa, coffee,
groundnuts, cotton or bananas are so poor, it is because they insist
on clinging to their ancestral beliefs; while the urban managerial
classes go on submitting to community pressures which, through
kinship obligations, stop them making any savings or productive
investments. More crudely, some go back to the climate theory to
explain Africa's "backwardness" or "helplessness". Others, with the
spectre of Malthus haunting international financial institutions, go
so far as to blame the poor themselves for having too many children,
making women and families the targets of population policy. By taking
account of the interaction between population, development and the
environment, the neo-liberal debate on the African economic crisis
also resorts to the "regressive spiral" theory of poverty, which
links population growth to environmental degradation.
These theorists prefer to forget that in Ivory Coast, for example,
the ascendancy of the plantation economy has caused the destruction
of four-fifths of the country's forests in 50 years. Moreover, by
maintaining the illusion of the "fatalism" of black farmers and the
"traditionalism" of their societies, said to be engaged in a constant
struggle to preserve their cultural forms, they have no need to
consider the creative potential of a people confronted by structural
constraints that oblige them to redefine themselves. Like parrots
captured in virgin forests, some Africans reproduce their masters'
voices: "21st century Africa will be rational or it will not be at
all," Axelle Kabou repeats in a provocative book (8). The irrational
attitudes and behaviour patterns of indigenous societies are well
known as part of a corpus of images and ideas conveyed by colonial
literature, which has long disregarded the skills of the local
Of course, responsibility for the continent's ills cannot be
placed at the door of external factors alone: Africa is also "sick of
itself". One need only mention the organised plundering by the ruling
classes who, as in Cameroon, for example, actually make corruption a
method of government. Or the practices whereby the state
redistributes resources to its supporters using predatory methods
that have brought many African countries to ruin, among them, of
course, Mobutu's Zaire. And there is no hiding the power of the
mafia-like networks and sundry lobbies that control strategic
resources and uphold corrupt dictatorships.
Most of the wars and conflicts that have ceaselessly impoverished
Africa can only be understood in the context of the geopolitical
stakes and strategic economic resources fought over by powerful
interest groups: oil, uranium, copper, diamonds, cobalt, gold or
aluminium (9). Such take-overs and interventions are the stock in
trade of socio-political systems where the ruling classes manipulate
ethnicity as part of their strategy of conquest or seizing power. One
need only look at the political economy of Africa's mineral
resources, now caught up in the conflictual dynamics of
globalisation. In the same way, the continent's pauperisation is
inseparable from the criminalisation of the state and the economy at
a time when the IMF and World Bank are using debt as a weapon to
weaken the state and force Africans to embrace the religion of the
In this light, what is conventionally called the "bankruptcy of
development" also reveals African societies' unflinching powers of
resistance. They are refusing to bear the costs of the strategies and
programmes that have failed to pull them out of the morass into which
the austerity measures dictated by the international financial
institutions are forcing them. An in-depth analysis of the present
situation requires an overall reappraisal of the refusal to question
the conditions for entering the modern economic world. The African
crisis inevitably brings us back to the crisis of know-how
surrounding the importing of "outside dynamics". Since the end of the
second world war, notes Georges Balandier, "the third world
countries' own theories of development have been first of all
modelled on external theories: those formed and tested in so-called
advanced societies and which are now being called into question"
(10). Those theories were developed from a pattern of social change
peculiar to the specific paths taken by Western societies that claim
a monopoly on modernity. It is a point of view that says that African
societies can only reproduce the model of the societies that are
trying to modernise them. In order to "succeed", they have not been
asked to innovate using their own internal dynamics or to steer
change in line with their own frames of reference.
If development is a "Western belief" (11), its bankruptcy also
spells the bankruptcy of capitalism in sub-Saharan Africa. In African
societies, the truly poor person is the one who has no kindred: the
family spirit and the principle of reciprocity underpin economic ties
within the mesh of social relationships. Given the weight of this
social and cultural framework, Africans tend to distance themselves
from a development model in which socio-economic inequalities are
considered one of the real engines of progress. They question an
economic modernisation that involves the destruction of social ties.
Few Africans are inclined to take on an alienating modernity that
seeks to bring in a way of being and behaving centred on the
individualism so typical of the modern West.
In Africa's villages and neighbourhoods where there is so much
decay, anonymous players are however demonstrating the inventiveness
of these societies and their ability to innovate in the face of the
mechanisms of impoverishment. The failure of a single development
model must not be allowed to hide the new dynamism that has appeared
in many African countries since the 1970s: rural communities
organising themselves; experiments in local development and
collective advancement; social movements in urban areas; local
enterprises triggering bursts of industrialisation; people finding
their own voice, creating a private press, engaging in constructive
criticism, defending their societies against the state; the birth and
spread of communities of researchers, scientists, thinkers, writers
and artists of international repute.
The scope of these changes means we must take a fresh look at the
real economy in these societies. Conventional schemes of analysis are
inappropriate where, for example, economic players who can neither
read nor write Western languages are moving to the centre of the
mechanisms for accumulating resources, as evidenced by the big Hausa
and Yoruba traders in Nigeria or the famous Nana Benz of Lomé,
Cotonou, Kinshasa or Douala. We are familiar with the dynamism of the
women who invest hugely in flourishing informal enterprises in
African villages and the impact this has on family structures.
The capacity for innovation, reinvention of traditions and
resurgence of native skills are these societies' responses to the
tightening of structural constraints and the demands of unbridled
capitalism. More than just a means of "getting by", these popular
practices are the concrete manifestations of a society and economy
rooted in local culture. Friendly societies or "tontines" form a
"total services" system where people can exchange not only "money and
work, but also meals, rites, especially mourning, friendship
obligations and advice" (12). Access to economic modernity is not
therefore incompatible with the forging of links between money and
In fact, the rebirth of associations in sub-Saharan Africa is
resulting in experiments in cooperative development. In a situation
where programmes drawn up by experts are based on supposedly
scientific assumptions affirming the universality of the category
homo economicus as opposed to homo africanus, these
experiments must be seen as a genuine alternative to the building of
a new barbarian economy on the ruins of society. The forms of
creativity that are spreading on the margins of the dominant system
by means of a kind of "intelligence of cunning" are a means of
subverting the Western system of development. Africans, possessed of
an imagination far removed from the Washington consensus, are thus
organising a break with the logic of violence and exclusion inherent
in the ethos that the West is seeking to impose on the whole of the
planet. Their many-sided tactics and strategies, "deviant" forms of
behaviour, are a sign of the vitality and renaissance of African
societies and cultures. These grass-roots practices without a doubt
make Africa the continent that is best resisting the levelling that
is going on in the world.
Africa is not against development. It dreams of other things than
the expansion of a culture of death or an alienating modernity that
destroys the fundamental values so dear to Africans. At the same time
Africa wants to be party to all the developments of the approaching
end of century. Which will make it the continent of the future (13).
Africa sees further than an all-embracing world of material things
and the dictatorship of the here and now, that insists on trying to
persuade us that the only valid motto is "I sell, therefore I am". In
a world often devoid of meaning, Africa is a reminder that there are
other ways of being.
*Cameroonian lecturer and researcher at Laval University (Quebec).
Author of "Innovations sociales et renaissance de l'Afrique noire",
L'Harmattan, Paris, 1998.
(1) Le Monde, 28 February 1990.
(2) Philippe Leymarle, "Une Afrique appauvrie dans la spirale des
conflits", in Manière de voir No. 25, February
(3) "L'Afrique à la dérive" in Manière de
voir No. 29, February 1996.
(4) Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Pour une histoire du
développement. Etat, sociétés,
développement, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1988, p. 3.
(5) Samir Amin, La Faillite du développement en Afrique
et dans le tiers-monde, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1989, p. 5.
(6) See Michel Fichet, "Le coton, moteur du développement",
Le Monde diplomatique, September 1998.
(7) Georges Balandier, Sens et puissance. Les dynamiques
sociales, PUF, Paris, 1988, p. 201.
(8) Axelle Kabou, Et si l'Afrique refusait le
développement?, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1991.
(9) See François Misser and Olivier Vallée, "Les
nouveaux acteurs du secteur minier africain", Le Monde
diplomatique, May 1998.
(10) Georges Balandier, Sens et puissance, op. cit.,
(11) Gérard Rist, "Le développement, une croyance
occidentale", Le Monde en développement No. 400,
January 1997. For an overall view see Jean-Marc Ela, "Culture,
pouvoir et développement en Afrique", in Claude Beauchamp
(ed.), Démocratie, culture et développement en
Afrique noire, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1997.
(12) Alain Henry, Guy-Honoré Tchente, Philippe
Guillermé-Dieumegard, Tontines et banques au Cameroun. Les
principes de la société des amis, Karthala, Paris,
1991. See also Maligui Soumah, "Créateurs d'entreprises
cherchent crédits", Le Monde diplomatique, May
(13) See Philippe Engelhard, L'Afrique, miroir du monde?,
Arléa, Paris, 1998.