Did European Colonialism Benefit Africans?

“We find it difficult to bring the available evidence together with plausible counter-factuals to argue that there is any country today in Sub-Saharan Africa which is more developed because it was colonized by Europeans. Quite the contrary.”

That is Leander Heldring and James Robinson writing in a new paper on the negative impact of colonialism on Africa’s economic prospects.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Interesting attempt at positive analysis of a difficult subject (esp. with regard to counter-factuals), although normative undertones drive most of the analytical narrative.

The negative legacies of colonialism – despotism, negative ethnicity, aid dependence, and general underdevelopment, etc – certainly do persist.

But for those unwilling to submit to the gods of path dependence, the question remains of how long incompetent African leaders will continue to blame outsiders for their own ineptitude. After half a century of independence, many Africans are wary of being the only ones left in the “bottom billion” once the East and South Asians climb up.

To paraphrase Achebe, the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the African character. There is nothing wrong with the African land or climate or water or air or anything else. Even external conquest and subsequent colonialism was not unique to Africa.

H/T Chris Blattman.

A critique of african culture

“A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”  Professor Peter Bodunrin

I am no Western apologist. I am a proud son of the soil (as Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers fame used to say) and a believer in the fundamentals of African socio-economic organization – a way of organizing society in which I am because we are. But I am no blanket African apologist either. And that is why I particularly like the candor of Bodurin. I am sick and tired of hearing Afrocentric thinkers prattle about how the life of the Afircan is serene. How it is untouched by modern greed and desires for material wealth. How it still embodies the true spirit of humanity.

I am tired because this kind of talk reminds me of Rousseau’s critique of arts and sciences in his first discourse – in which he talks about “uncivilized” peoples being noble savages and portraying this as the true nature of man that we should all aspire to. This is bull. It is bull because when you go hungry. When you cannot read or write. When your children die of simple treatable illnesses. When your entire life is lived in a dystopia that has lasted generations. You are not noble, savage or not. You are subordinate to nature and all its mysteries.

A little reality check will establish that there is almost nothing noble about the life of the African at this point in history. We are the laughing-stock of the world. Images of starving children and scary deranged men in war zones are what define us to the rest of the world. It therefore disturbs me quite a bit when I hear our leaders talk about “African culture” and the need to preserve it.

What culture is it that these men are talking about? Is it the culture that keeps millions upon millions hungry and illiterate? Is it the culture that allows them to marry five wives and oppress them as they so wish? Is it the culture that makes us apathetic politically and allows them to steal from us? If this is the culture they are talking about and that they want us to preserve then I am against it. I am against it because it burdens us with a docile and meek morality that is blindly accepting of hierarchy and ideologically impoverished authoritarianism.

I am no sociologist but I know that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we have come to organize our societies in the post-European-contact era. All our social institutions have come to be either European or in reaction to Europe. I say that it is time we went back to true Africanness. True Africanness means caring for one another. It means providing for the hungry and only indulging in excesses after everyone has what they need to live a decent life. It means an appreciation of nature in a way that only Eastern traditions come close. It means being passionate about life and its blessings – I believe it is Senghor who said that Africans are a people of passion and not reason. I want to go further and say that we are a people who are passionate about all that we do (including our use of reason).

The African is alive. We are not like the Westerner who is chained by “norms” or the Easterner who blindly denies his humanity as he strives for higher rewards. We are alive! We embrace humanity with vigor and rhythm. We are as diverse as diverse can get. And we care for one another – valuing human life like no other human society does. (Do not let the wars delude you. I am yet to meet a people who have as much a reverence for human life as does the African. This is one of the foundations of African Philosphy – that life is cyclical, the living, the dead and the unborn all participate and so all life is revered. Just look at African burial ceremonies and mourning rituals if you are in doubt.)

It is time we returned to the fundamentals. We should be careful not to confuse true African culture with practices that came out of poverty or contact with Europe and in some instances Arabia. When we return to these fundamentals, we will find that African culture is not at all incompatible with modernity. We can stop being nomads when it is not economical to do so. We can stop having a thousand children per household. We can stop wife-inheritance. We can stop wife-beating. We can stop female genital mutilation and all evils against our mothers and sisters. All these practices are not African. They are human, and temporal. We should see them as habits from an era gone by. And we can change them.

What makes us African is in our social relations. Not in the environment or our economic condition. We will only return to that greatness when we restructure our social organizations and carefully remove all foreign practices that have tainted the Spirit of Africa.