P215 – Economic Failure, Political Success? Long-term Histories of Development in Africa
10 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Becker Felicitas / University of Cambridge


That development projects do not normally achieve what they set out to do is by now a banal observation. What is more controversial is how to understand and characterise the effects they do have, and the relationship between post-colonial development and colonial-era economic and social intervention in Africa. The most insightful studies so far have tended to focus on specific projects over relatively short time spans, for instance in James Ferguson’s work. But how does the understanding of what development actually does change if we take into account less coordinated but more protracted interventions over time? The present panel examines this question in several ways. It places well-known instantiations of colonial and post-colonial development –concretely, cocoa-growers’ cooperatives in Ghana and Tanzanian villagisation – in longer-term context, identifying paradoxical effects and subtle continuities. It re-examines the effects that long-standing ideologies and idioms of development have had in in specific social contexts: Rwandan elites’ use of liberal developmentalist idioms to bolster their dominance, and the role of ‘development’ in expansive governance in Southern Africa. Lastly, it examines long-standing misunderstandings between historians and economists seeking to understand the problems of African development.

Échec économique, succès politique? Histoires à long terme du développement en Afrique

On sait bien que les projets de développement n’atteignent souvent pas leurs objectifs. Mais ils ont néanmoins de nombreux effets inattendus, qui sont plus difficiles à identifier et comprendre. En outre, les liens entre le développement colonial et post-colonial restent controversés. Jusqu’à présent, les études les plus perspicaces ont porté sur des projets spécifiques de court terme, comme le montre par exemple l’œuvre de James Ferguson. Comment notre compréhension de ces histoires change-t-elle si l’on prend en considération les efforts moins coordonnés, mais de plus longue durée? Cet exposé examine la question sous plusieurs angles. Il aborde des exemples bien connus de développement colonial et post-colonial – c’est-à-dire, les coopératives agricoles au Ghana, et la « villagisation » en Tanzanie – dans leurs contextes de long terme, en identifiant des effets paradoxaux et des continuités subtiles. Il réexamine les effets des idéologies et discours persistants du développement dans des contextes sociaux spécifiques : l’utilisation d’idiomes libéraux de développement dans les élites rwandaises afin de soutenir leur domination, et le rôle du « développement » dans la gouvernementalité de plus en plus tendue en Afrique du Sud. Finalement, il examine l’incompréhension persistante entre historiens et économistes qui les uns comme les autres cherchent à comprendre les problèmes du développement en Afrique. 

Paper 1

Jerven Mortem / Simon Fraser University

A Clash of Disciplines? Economists and Historians Approaching the African Past

This review article examines the differences in the approaches taken by economists and historians when interpreting social and economic change in the African past. It is argued that it is a mistake to assume that one discipline has supremacy over the other, let alone monopoly, when it comes to evaluating historical causes of African poverty. One of the shortcomings of the ‘New African Economic History’ is that it has largely sidestepped the issue of data quality. In cross-disciplinary work it is generally advised that data points and observations should roughly cohere with the state of knowledge in the other disciplines. Economists do themselves a disservice if the only criteria they consider for ‘robustness’ of historical arguments are those pertaining to econometric methods.

Paper 2

Becker Felicitas / University of Cambridge

Not modernist madness: Tanzanian villagisation in long-term perspective

While there has been innovative recent work on the way villagisation was understood on the ground, the understanding of its cause and political dynamic has moved on little from James Scott’s 1999 intervention. He portrayed it as a prolonged attack of modernist madness, when a ‘high-modern aesthetic’ ran away with Tanzanian planners. Thought-provoking though Scott’s thesis is, its diffusionist character is problematic: why would Tanzanian development planners have been so beholden to Western (or rather, Northeastern) models? This presentation proposes a different explanation for villagisation by exploring its kinship with rural development projects that preceded and succeeded it. Stripped of the rhetoric, villagisation was an attempt to expand and improve rural production. It shares with many initiatives before and since a double focus on technocratic and social intervention. What sets it apart is its scale. This megalomania, though, is arguably best understood as a response to the political need for Tanzania’s leaders to be seen to do something dramatic, due not to their lack of connection with the countryside as per Scott (and also Hyden), but rather to their desire to retain legitimacy there.

Paper 3

Elong Ebolo Eric / Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Rethinking African Development in the 21st Century: Is Colonialism still Relevant in the Development Discourse?

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