Serrekunda Market in Banjul, The Gambia.                            Photo credit: Kofi Jnr. Photography


African underdevelopment is a common subject of debate among scholars, practitioners and citizens alike. More than half a century into independent governance, the question remains why people living in some of the richest land on earth do not experience a higher quality of life. There is an uneasy sense that the usual answers of governance, geography or culture do not sufficiently explain this state of affairs. It is a question that Africans must continue to grapple with to dig past the easy answers to the truth.

This two-part series is a step in that direction: It examines the persistence of Africa’s development challenges over the last century, with a view to generating more effective responses to the issues driving them. Part 1 details the historical  influences that have played significant roles in limiting the continent’s economic trajectory. It demonstrates that African underdevelopment is more a product of exploitative international relationships and global power imbalances, than of internal conditions and policy failures; and that these systemic causes of underdevelopment must be overcome for African countries to make significant economic progress in the twenty-first century. The article is divided into three sections: Sections i) and ii) provide essential background to the discussion; and part iii) outlines the key factors contributing to African underdevelopment. Reader feedback and discussion is invited in advance of Part 2, which will  discuss potential responses to these factors.


I). Thinking about African History 

The current borders and corresponding development programs of African states are less than a hundred years old, but the economic and political realities that have shaped their present conditions stretch back centuries. A long run historical narrative of economic activity and development in Africa, therefore provides critical context for our comprehension of these countries’ current economic circumstances. Africa’s contemporary challenges and successes can be best understood through a lens comprising, the continent’s natural conditions; subsequent production and trade patterns; and the interests and ideologies that have guided the formation of these patterns. Constructing an accurate account of African economic history requires the dispelling of a few basic myths that skew development discourse: The first being that African countries lack the resources to improve the living conditions of their citizens; secondly, the notion that Africa has always lagged the rest of the world technologically and economically; and lastly, the view that Africa’s development challenges are peculiar to the continent and primarily internal in nature.

The fact is, Africa is not poor. Rather, African people have suffered from the expropriation and mismanagement of their vast resources – the violent externalisation of Congolese mining profits through and beyond the colonial encounter is one stark example. Africa is undoubtedly one of the richest continents on earth, most of whose national borders enclose vast mineral wealth, arable land, large water bodies, and a great variety of valuable plants and wildlife. The economies of her modern states have often grown two or three times faster than world averages. The list of independence-era countries regularly approaching double-digit GDP growth testifies to African potential for economic dynamism. A lack of economic transformation has meant however that recent growth has tended to be jobless, erratic, and subject to the fluctuations of commodity prices and interest rates beyond the control of governing authorities.

Africa is also not historically backward either, her native civilisations have produced social sophistications, technical innovations and capital accumulations on par or possibly ahead of other world regions over the last few millennia: The nuanced justice, representation and power-checking structures and effective communal welfare systems built into the royal courts and wider societies of most early African nations; the scientific and philosophical knowledge depositories of the great libraries of Timbuktu and Alexandria; the innovative construction techniques of Nubian and Zimbabwean kingdoms; pioneering Egyptian mathematics, astronomy and engineering; and the record trade wealth of the Ghana and Mali empires, are just a few historic examples of African advancement. The problem is, Africa’s ancient knowledge systems have been devalued and marginalised by colonial education systems, and her rich cultural heritage largely erased by the breakdown of communal structures that preserved oral tradition and the disrepair, dispersion or intentional destruction of native records and artefacts.

Lastly, the core issues underlying African development challenges are not those derived from commonly problematised attributes of ‘African-ness’ such as geographic, cultural or political impediments. Rather, African development has suffered most seriously from the continent’s status as part of the world periphery – the underdeveloped nations whose resources and labour support the industrial activities and living standards of wealthier nations. The perpetual imbalance of the relationship between core and periphery is maintained by an imbalance of power relations – military, political and economic. African development has been crippled over the last two centuries by the external imposition of this imbalance, militarily in the colonial projects of the 1890s to 1950s, and then politically and economically in the neo-colonial projects of the 1950s to 2010s.


II). Thinking about African Development

The continent’s endowments have not translated into substantial improvements in quality of life for the societies that own them. Indigenous knowledge is overlooked in organising societies and improving standards of living, and under-represented in global knowledge systems such as academic journals. Most African economies remain highly commodity-dependent, and many of Africa’s people today live in poor conditions, unable to meet basic needs, enjoy high value economic opportunities, or pass on significant durable assets to the next generation.

This begs the question – how did we get here? Given the resources that are concentrated within our borders, why are we not prospering in absolute and comparative terms? Commonly cited factors are capital scarcity, poor governance, low education, and disadvantageous geography. These have had different effects to a different extent across the continent, varying on a case by case basis. Given the broad commonalities in the socioeconomic outcomes of African countries, amid a nuanced variety of circumstances and experiences, none of the above factors can be extrapolated across space and time. We must be able to look beyond individual issues and events to draw out underlying patterns and themes, and examine the interaction of different influences to see how the bigger picture comes together. An encompassing causal analysis therefore requires a meta-narrative of common systems within which these individual drivers exist and interact. For example, the disconnect between natural wealth and widespread poverty indicates, on surface inspection, that obdurate difficulties in the areas of resource management, value addition and wealth distribution impede significant improvement in the average African citizen’s quality of life. However, careful consideration of the origin of these financial difficulties reveals underlying systems and structures at national and international levels that perpetuate local dysfunction, so that the core question of African development is not how best to succeed at piecemeal interventions in individual issue areas, but how to undo the persistent effects of the small number of negative events, relations, and ideas that continue to generate a wide range of development challenges.


III). How we got here

Having established the necessity of a long run  historical perspective and the utility of a systemic meta-narrative in explaining Africa’s present economic conditions, we can construct a pertinent superstructure for our argument by narrowing down the causal factors in underdevelopment to the most cogent. The tradition of dependency theory is helpful in identifying three major dynamics that apply across the continent, and underdeveloped areas in general: The present reality of Africa’s underdevelopment is founded on a history of extraversion, exploitation, and extraction. These are addressed in turn below:

Extraversion is a concept associated with the direction, purpose and nature of economic activity within a territory, and first began to influence African development around the 16th century. An extraverted territory is one whose economy derives limited endogenous rationale for its existence, instead prioritising activities that are disproportionately oriented toward the serving of needs, interests and production arrangements outside its borders. Modern African economies do not characteristically produce local products for local needs. They mainly export basic commodities to Western Europe and North America, whose domestic lead firms direct global industries with products designed around their preferences. African extraversion can also be displayed in the areas of education, media, politics and social norms being heavily influenced and defined by foreign contexts, objectives and evaluation criteria. Most African states still maintain the official languages, government, legal and education systems of their colonisers, and continue to be inundated with cultural preferences, value systems and  historical narratives of foreign media machines. This situation is neither natural nor necessary, as Africa has not always been economically extraverted. Early African kingdoms typically accumulated wealth from their locations in fertile agricultural lands and along trans-continental trade routes, enriching inland centres of economic power. The coastal regions and overseas trade demands grew in relative importance with the advent of the transatlantic slave trade, European maritime exploration and colonial projects. The increased significance of seaports, the colonial legacy of coastal capitals and the new  ‘disadvantage’ of being landlocked testify to this redirection and redefinition of African economies. African extraversion is both a product and a perpetuator of its world periphery status, and continues to weaken the continent’s long term economic prospects.

Exploitation connotes financial or other advantage derived from the unjust treatment, deception or subjugation of people, and the related diversion, appropriation or otherwise unfair use of their property. African development has been hindered by exploitation of people and property from within and without – first by overseas colonisers, and then by many of the indigenous governments that replaced them. While the independence era began with the ephemeral rise of visionary leaders like Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba, the parades of dictators, autocrats and kleptocrats that followed their untimely demise have not been a fitting reprieve from the burden of colonisation:

  • From the territorial conquests of the British South Africa Company to the Belgian annexing of the Congo as King Leopold’s private property; and
  • From the expropriation of fertile land displacement of peasant farmers along with redistributive injustices of the first agricultural marketing boards, to the imposition of hut tax, coerced labor and restricted movement of workers and their families;
  • From the repression of local industries in favor of uncompetitive metropoles to the externalisation of mineral profits;
  • From the political scandals of Francafrique and the enduring outrage of the French-West African monetary system, to the covert interventions and strongman installations of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The socioeconomic costs of the systematic destruction of African societies and economies still weigh on the countries struggling to rebuild themselves in something other than the image of their oppressors. Exploitation had its heyday in the imperial depredations of the 19th and 20th centuries, but persists to the present in the spectre of lopsided international finance and trade systems. The weakening and capture of African policy-making organs through a state of constant reaction to multiple donor demands and acquiescence to the conditions of international financiers; the disenfranchisement of the masses through the false choices of externally driven democratisation, and the general social and economic devastation of structural adjustment programs have all hampered Africa’s post-colonial recovery. Further, African economies have struggled to escape their designated position at the bottom of global value chains, their case not helped by the skewed trade liberalisation, intellectual property and investment management demands of the World Trade Organisation and bilateral trade treaty negotiations, the combined effect of which is to obstruct the paths to industrialisation for the global South that were previously used to elevate the global North to its current level of relative prosperity.

Extraction here denotes the methodical and injurious removal of resources from a local economy. The scale of wealth extraction from the continent is now well-documented as far exceeding all forms of external aid flowing to it, helping to explain the stunted, episodic nature of African development. Persistent financial outflows negatively affect currency circulation, capital accumulation and sustainable investment in improved means of production, both weakening an economy through a secular trend towards stagnation, and eroding its ability to counteract the downward spiral. Extraction goes beyond the physical removal of oft-undervalued primary resources – it includes the externalisation of value through extraterritorial processing of materials and location of high-productivity activities, theft of public resources, capital flight, and illicit financial flows such as, dishonest transfer pricing, mis-invoicing, and other profit expatriation schemes. The chief perpetrators in extraction of African wealth tend to be unrestricted multinational corporations, opportunistic transnational capital, and unaccountable public officials, robbing citizens of the resources necessary for provision of public services, social welfare and strategic capital projects. Africa continues to develop and prosper other regions of the world at the expense of her own citizens, and often with the indirect or knowing complicity of the gatekeepers charged with protecting and managing her resources.

These three core development challenges – extraversion, exploitation, and extraction – encompass and undergird many of the developmental difficulties encountered across Africa, from widespread poverty, unemployment and low-productivity work to electoral fraud and political violence; from graft and corruption to failing public systems including health, education and infrastructure.

While specific interventions to address these symptomatic difficulties are important and meaningful in the short and medium term, failure to address their root causes does not bode well for sustainability of impact or for Africa’s long term advancement. The challenge for Africans is to turn the focus of public debate and policy toward addressing these issues. The questions to the reader(s) are to what extent we as African citizens have closely considered these issues, and what actions we can take or are taking in response.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.