I am in a Development Studies (DS) class on “The Political Economy of African Development”. It’s an interesting class for many reasons most important one being that it’s an examination of the continent that I grew up in. It utilizes a theoretical approach, engaging work from social science, economics and political science, all to find out “Why Africa is so poor”. From the colonial past, to geographical and demographical reasons, the class really does show a wide range of views that might help us answer the perennial question of the “continent’s apparent curse”. I think it is, almost all, BS (here, please don’t excuse my French.)
I grew up under what many would consider the prime example of the “failed African state”. Zimbabwe’s president has been in power for more time than 70% of the population has been alive (Fun fact: majority of Zimbabwean are between the ages of 15 and 35). President Mugabe has been accused several times of rigging elections and his party has used violence especially in the run-up to elections.
In 2008, the country went through one of the worst economic times in any country’s history. Hyperinflation was the buzzword of the year, said left right and center, I doubt with much understanding of what it even meant. Store shelves were empty and people died of hunger.
Our HIV/AIDS rate competes with other “developing countries’ high rates. We have had a critical cholera outbreak. We suffer from “brain drain” (I myself ironically writing this is the basement of an American school dorm).
So if you can think of some of the worst things that you have heard happen in “Africa” (yes, Africa the one big landmass where we all just know each other from Cape to Cairo and gather to dance tribal dances around campfires), it has probably happened to Zimbabwe.
I make fun of the misconception of Africa as this one small place that goes through this uniform experience of disease, war and famine because it comes up all the time. Ask anyone who has fielded questions like “I have a friend in Kenya, do you know her” despite the fact that you said you are from Botswana. But the issue is bigger than just ignorant people who have never looked at a map other than to look at the global west.
I’ll go back to the title of my DS class, “The Political Economy of African Development”. Now how can we look at the politics and economies of 54 countries in just 12 weeks which is more or less the length of this semester? Now you might say, but Gwen, people do teach classes on the history of Europe which has 50 countries. And that’s true. But imagine the entire history of Europe being looked at ALL the time from a broad, all-encompassing perspective. It would obviously mean that a lot of things have to be left out because no one simply has that kind of time to both write and read a book that long.
And yet, year in and out, you’ll hear about “African development”, “African economies”, “Africa is rising” as if we all live in the same Africa. Even within the small country I am from, there are people living in very different Africas. Some live the “good life”: mansions in suburbs, vacations in other countries, shopping in Paris, education in the UK, US or Australia and yet others really do live on less than a dollar a day. Some children walk more than 24 kilometers a day just to go to school.
So when I see a statistic that claims that “Per capita, electricity in Africa (excluding South Africa) averages only 124 kilowatt-hours a year… This is hardly enough to power one light bulb per person for six hours a day.” (Agupusi, Okereke, 2014) While this is an important statistic that shows that electricity generation in Africa still has a long way to go, it achieves this by creating the impression that electricity distribution in Africa (with the exception of South Africa of course :p) is distributed in that way. But the truth is there are many nuances that have been excluded that people thinking about policies should really be thinking about. Take for example the fact that in urban Zimbabwe some places go for twelve hours, give or take without electricity and others never experience electricity “load shedding” i.e. have power 24/7.
All this to get to the first thing I would recommend to (s)he who decides what is in fashion for all these developmental economists and theorists. Start thinking and theorizing in depth about specific countries within Africa. It might yield more results than “development” has seen so far.
What do you think? Particularly within academia which is often what impacts policies on International Organizational level. I would love to hear from you.