By Michael Barratt Brown
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 62 (1997), pp. 13-40]
[The Third Annual African Studies Lecture given at the University of Leeds on the 30th April 1997]
I regard it as a very particular honour that you should have invited me to give this lecture at this important and long established centre of African studies. I am not, unlike the two previous lecturers, an African. I am not an Africanist. Apart from two years of war-time service in North Africa, I have not lived in Africa. My visits have been short and limited to three or four countries. Yet I have written two books on Africa and several on imperialism with some reference to Africa. It would be reasonable to ask: with what authority did I write and with what authority do I present myself to you here tonight? I do not know that I could establish my authority, but at least I think that I should explain the origins of my interest in Africa. A lecture like this among so many friends is an occasion for some personal explanation, and I propose to set what I have to say in the form of a personal journey of discovery, which may, I hope, establish credentials for something more than romanticism in my writings.
Why I was interested in Africa
I was brought up in a Quaker family in Oxford, where we lived almost next door to two other Quaker families with children of the same age, children of two brothers called Gillett – one a banker and the other a doctor. The doctor, Henry, was one of the founders of Oxford Famine Relief, which came to be called OXFAM. The banker, Arthur, had been sent as a young man to South Africa by the Society of Friends at the end of the Boer War with a group of Friends to examine and report on the condition of the Boer prisoners in the concentration camps which the British army had established.
It so happened that in the course of this inquiry he came to form a close relationship with one of the Boer rebel leaders – Jan Smuts, who was later to become a South African Prime Minister and member of the British war cabinet. When the Quaker delegation had finished its work, Arthur Gillett asked Smuts if there was anything else he could do for the Boer people. Smuts asked him to set up a bank, which he did and when Gillett’s bank was merged into Barclays, this became Barclays DCO of uncertain fame. The world is always more complex than it seems.
There is an amusing coda to this story. My mother decided after Harold Macmillan’s speech in South Africa about the wind of change in the world which should blow apartheid away that she would write to the Quaker chairman of Barclays Bank, tellingthe story of the origins of the Bank’s South African interest and suggesting in very gentle Quaker language that it was time for them to withdraw their interest. The chairman replied in the same language that it was in their view more helpful to black South Africans that the bank should stay than that it should leave. As one Quaker chairman succeeded another over the years, my mother each time wrote a similar letter and received a similar courteous-but negative reply. Just before she died in 1984, my mother looked up from the Guardian, which she was reading and said “Michael I have won; Barclays has sold up its South African interest” and took pen and paper at 97 to congratulate the current chairman.
For me the importance of Arthur Gillett was not his banking interest in South Africa, but the African and Indian children who came to school in England and lived in his house and the fact that several of his own and his brother’s children became Communists. Nontando Jubavu was a close friend of my sister’s and very radical in her views, although her father as the headmaster of an elite African School was well incorporated into the imperial system. One of my best friends at my preparatory school was Kumaramangalam, who lived with the Gilletts and developed strong left-wing views, and became a minister in the cabinets of Indira Gandhi. Indira herself, who shared rooms at Oxford with my first wife, spent part of her holidays at the Gilletts. I did not then agree with the extreme left-wing views that were discussed at the Gilletts – I was still too much of a Quaker pacifist – but they had a powerful influence on my thinking thereafter.
My first direct association with Africa came about during the Second World War. I had joined the Friends Ambulance Unit and after driving an ambulance in the London blitz was sent out to the Middle East with Brandon Cadbury to replace two of our leading officers who had been killed. The Mediterranean was closed so we had to go the long way round Africa. Our ship was grazed but not sunk by a torpedo and we limped into Freetown Harbour for repairs. From Sierra Leone with a heavy list we hugged the African coast via Takoradi and Lagos and then to Walvis Bay and Cape Town.
Brandon had taken the precaution of obtaining cocoa-based Cadbury introductions to the Colonial Secretaries with whom we stayed en route and finally to Smuts. The contrast between the villas of the white population and the shanty towns of the blacks horrified me and I did not know what to do at “Whites Only” entrances to Post Offices and railway stations in Cape Town. What if Nontando had been with me, I wondered. This may all seem old-hat now after apartheid, but it was very shocking at the time.
From Cape Town Brandon Cadbury was able to arrange for us to go by rail across the Kalahari desert to Durban where we stayed with Quakers for some days and thence to fly by sea-plane via Laurenco Marques (Maputo), Dar Es Salaam, Mozambique, Kampala (Lake Victoria), Khartoum to Cairo. If you want to see Africa, take a flying boat. You never rise more than a few hundred feet above the ground or the water and can without difficulty see the groups of huts surrounded by little fields, men, women and children moving about and even dogs and monkeys and other wild animals. Have a guide book with you and arrange for some engine trouble to delay you at interesting places and you’ll have a real bird’s eye view of a whole continent. The journey took three months from London to Cairo and after that I had over a year of Egypt and the North African desert, followed by two years in Yugoslavia.
This is a long and roundabout way of saying that I knew when I got back to England after working with UNRRA in Yugoslavia, that I wanted to understand the origins of the division of the world between an industrialised North and a still un-industrialised South. My economic studies at Oxford before the war had told me that according to Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage every country and region should concentrate on producing what it was best at (or least bad at) and leave other things to others, and then all would benefit from this division of labour. It was very clear to me from my travels that the benefits were unequally distributed.
By what acts of history had the North been able to develop manufacturing industry with all its evident advantages, while the South remained largely agrarian? Was this just the result of colonial rule? How had the Europeans been able to establish their dominant position? Why was it so advantageous to move from an agrarian to an industrial society? And what was happening with the end of empire? I began to seek answers to these questions and to discuss them in Cambridge University extra-mural and WEA classes, where I was teaching. I found works by Marx and his followers to help me, not only the volumes of Capital, but Marx’s articles for the New York Herald Tribune on “The Results of British Rule in India”, from which it appeared that Marx believed that imperial rule would have both a destructive and regenerative effect, so that industrial capitalism would spread everywhere – “de te fabula narratur (your turn next)”, as he told his German readers. Lenin’s little book written in 1916, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism greatly influenced me, drawing on J.A.Hobson’s Imperialism to describe the division of the world between rival centres of finance capital in a monopoly stage of capitalism. A book by R.P.Dutt appeared in 1953 on The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, which sought to show on the basis of his previous study of India Today that Britain’s wealth was based upon plunder from India and , when this and other colonial tribute dried up, capitalism would collapse. This seemed to me to be doubtful, but I was still mainly concerned to discover why we Europeans had come to rule so many non-Europeans and why they had not colonised us and what was the real advantage of colonies and for whom?
As I read further into the history of the relations between Europeans and other peoples, it became obvious that European domination had been a very close run thing. Herodotus regarded black people as more intelligent than whites, and Martin Bernal has recently established convincingly that Greek civilisation came from Upper Egypt via Crete; the Persian Empire was only narrowly defeated by the Greeks in the Fifth Century BC; Hannibal from Carthage in North Africa reached the outskirts of Rome and only after years of fighting was driven back; the Moors occupied almost the whole of Spain for 700 years and were with difficulty driven out of Gaul by Charles Martel; Mongols, Tatars and Ottomans ruled over much of what was the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia for hundreds of years. But these conquerors were largely nomadic peoples who learned their civilisation from the lands they conquered as the successive invaders of China from Mongolia had done.
The real question was: why had the ancient civilisations on the world’s great river valleys not continued their economic development, and expecially the great Niloticempires of Africa. During the time that I was biwied at Mena and woke up each morning under the shadow of the Pyramids of Gaza, the question could not be evaded. What did the Europeans have that others lacked? Racist explanations were offensive and made no sense: the earliest civilisations were in China and India and Persia and of course Egypt.
Francis Bacon, 16th century founder of European science, said that it was the possession of printing, the compass and gunpowder; but all these inventions, as Joseph Needham reminded me, had been brought from China to Europe by the Arabs, and Bacon had to go to the Moors to learn his mathematics. Some said it was the Christian religion – and certainly Christians have been involved in the worst genocidal wars – but Islam and Christianity have so much in common in their roots that this failed to convince as an explanation of European imperialism.
While I was working at the problem, John Strachey, from whom I had learnt my first Marxian economics, produced in his dotage the extraordinary idea that Europeans had developed a “daemonic will to empire”, “to dominate other peoples” and “this was now leaving the British” – which presumably explained Strachey’s failure as Minister of War in a Labour government some years earlier to suppress a major rebellion against the British in Malaya.
Another good man in his decline, the scientific writer Ritchie Calder, had suggested that the Europeans had the benefit of the raw materials – coal and iron especially -which the rest of the world lacked. In fact, I thought that it could well be argued that their very lack of raw materials sent the Europeans venturing over the oceans to bring back the essentials of commerce and industry – gold and silver, spices and cotton, tea and tobacco, coffee and cocoa, copper and tin, and then iron and oil as their own resources ran out.
Here it seemed to me that I had reached the heart of the matter; and with the help of Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism, Christopher Hill’s God’s Englishman: Cromwell and the English Revolution and Lipson’s Economic History of England, I found the actual texts setting out the project of a world division of labour in Cromwell’s Navigation Acts. These were neatly summed up in 1699 by the English Commissioner for Trade and Plantations:
“It was the intention in settling our plantations in America that the people there should be employed in such things as are not the produce of England to which they belong … the second great justification of colonies was that they could be constrained to buy English manufactures, and the whole trade be carried in English ships.”
The Artificial World Division of Labour
There I had it: The English would develop their manufacturing industry and draw the raw materials from the colonies, first in America and then in Africa and elsewhere, and these would not develop their own industries. But what was the great advantage in being a manufacturer and not a primary producer? There was obviously advantage to be gained from having a monopoly position as importers of spices or tobacco andgreat disadvantage in having only one or two products to offer on the world market. This was what the early merchant adventurers had exploited. But Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism had made it clear that it was the “outsiders” and not the great merchant monopolists who had established industrial capitalism in Britain and developed the empire as their market.
I found the whole story wonderfully illuminated in that great but little known book by the victim of Senator MacCarthy’s purge of Hollywood, John Howard Lawson, entitled The Hidden Heritage. After the initial protectionist phase, the British Empire was built with increasing degrees of free trade. Of course, many monopolies remained, including the monopoly of capital itself, but the British industrialists saw to it that the monopoly of the great East India Company was destroyed and it was a free trade imperialism which British capital pursued in the Nineteenth Century.
The fact was that the British were the first in the field and it was to their advantage to open up the whole world to their manufactures and to the investment of their capital. Only when they were challenged by German and then American and other capital did they seek to safeguard some of Britain’s most vulnerable industries behind protective walls. The empire was clearly divided between dominions (and the USA which had revolted from British rule), where development was encouraged to provide markets for British goods and British investment, and the colonies where raw materials were produced for export to supply Britain’s industries. British capital evidently needed both – expanding markets and cheap raw materials – but impoverished colonies could not provide rich markets.
Imperial power meant that force could be employed to extract cheap products from mines and plantations in the colonies, particularly in Africa, and the narrow range of products from each colony exaggerated their dependence on the European and later the North American markets. But this was no basis for colonial development. The great advantages in diversification, so as not to be dependent on the sale of just one or two products in world markets, were not available. To diversify their output or to develop their own industries on the basis of their raw materials, the colonies would need to buy machinery and equipment and get finance from the very powers who held them as colonies. They were caught in a double bind.
At Oxford in the 1930s, while I was studying colonial economies I had been troubled by the fact that the ex-patriate colonial companies appeared to have been able to maintain their profits, even when the prices of the commodities they produced were falling. I found that these companies could protect themselves from the collapse in world prices by their influence at home, in arranging with other colonial companies for commodity control schemes, but at the expense of lower wages and prices for the actual producers – miners, plantation workers, craftsmen, small farmers. JWF Rowe had written a book in 1936 entitled Markets and Men: A Study of Artificial Control Schemes in some Primary Industries, which I see from my copy that I bought in that year, no doubt to impress my tutor, who was none other than Sir Arthur Salter.
The Origins of Inequality
I still had not answered the fundamental question about colonies. How did it come about that the British got in first, followed by other Europeans and only later by the Japanese and East Asians? Africa had a gold industry – why else the golden guinea? India had textiles that Manchester in 1800 needed a 100% tariff to keep at bay, and she had steel that surpassed anything from Europe until the 1860s. China had of course china and chinoiserie that captured European markets in the Nineteenth Century. South America had almost all the raw materials of industry in abundance that the imperial powers including the United States needed. Was it just the very lack of these materials that gave Europe the edge? This hardly seemed reason enough for European domination and the continuing and growing inequality between rich and poor, North and South.
It is hard to imagine now, with vast university and specialist libraries, reprints and translations of early books and with data bases filled with references and summaries of books and articles that 1 had to go to the British Museum to read such classics as Marx’s Grundrisse, Markham’s edition of The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci, Orme’s History of the Transactions of the British Nation in Industan, James Mill’s History of British India, Sir Edwin Sandys’ Europae Speculum or Granet’s Civilisation Chinoise. Even many more recent works were not available in other libraries. I was fortunate that as a researcher for a documentary film unit I could use some of my library time for my own researches.
The more I read, the more it seemed that the difference between the kingdoms of Europe on the one hand and on the other the great empires of China and India, of Egypt and Persia and of Central and Southern America lay in the systems of agriculture. Marx and Engels had pointed to the absence of property in land in the East, but that itself needed to be explained. Wittvogel had taken up Marx’s concept of an Asiatic Mode of Production that was different from European Feudalism, being based not upon rain-fed but upon irrigated agriculture. Irrigation was the basis of the great Bronze Age civilisations, of Egypt, Persia and India and of the Aztecs and of successive Chinese empires, as I found when Joseph Needham introduced me to the writings of the Chinese historian, Wu Ta Kun.
In the first issue in 1953 of an exciting new historical journal, Past and Present, Wu Ta Kun had explored this theory, in “An Interpretation of Chinese Economic History“. The contrasts of Feudalism with the Asiatic mode were clear in Europe and also significantly in Japan: no great river valley civilisations, nobody’s water supply centrally controlled, the rain fell regularly from heaven. Inventive men and women could use the little rivers and streams to supply power for mills to do every sort of grinding and cutting and forging, and so invention was encouraged. But there were parts of China suitable for such a development. Was there something else and what about Africa – apart from Egypt, with no great river valleys suitable for irrigation? What were the strengths of African agriculture that had tamed such an inhospitable continent? And what to say about the Chinese trade with Africa? The extraordinary irony of history that the Chinese withdrew from the Indian Ocean and the African gold trade, just as the Europeans entered, was noted in 1959 by Basil Davidson in his book Old Africa Rediscovered. And why did they withdraw? Because the Chinese emperor, fearing the growth of a merchant class to challenge his power based on tribute from the land, had all the ocean going junks burnt in 1512. More than this, at about the same time that Basil Davidson’s book appeared I discovered from Owen Lattimore, just released from a MacCarthyite prison sentence in the USA, who had come to be the first Professor of Chinese at this University of Leeds, of the book he had written in 1940, Inner Asian Frontiers of China.
Here, he showed, was another reason for the great centralisation of power of the empires, not only in China, but in Upper Egypt, in India, in Persia and in the Russian state of Muscovy. The empire had to be defended from nomadic invaders. So the capital was overwhelmingly fortified, as in Beijing, Thebes, Delhi, Persepolis or Moscow, at the point of strongest defence against invasion, not in the middle of the rich river valleys. How different was the history of North-West Europe, far from the Golden Horde and containing many separate nation states, their capital cities centrally placed on the little rivers, each state competing for supremacy as the Chinese northern kingdoms once had done before the unification of the North and South! Along with small scale and diversity I could see went the people’s self-confidence. It was possible in Europe, and also I discovered in Japan, for a ruling clique to be overthrown, for changes to be made, even for kings to be executed, all without outside intervention and conquest. A middle class not only of merchants but of soldiers, craftsmen, engineers, lawyers, doctors, small farmers could prosper with the confidence to innovate and to challenge overweening authority. Not all the differences, of course, between Europe and Japan on the one hand and on the other the rest of Asia, Africa or Southern America could be read off from systems of agriculture. Cultural differences derive from and feed into differences of environment – climate and land and water supply – and their application for assuring human survival. Arnold Toynbee in his three volume Study of History, which I read on my long journey round the African coast, had proposed harsh conditions as the stimulus for human inventiveness and the opposite, pleasures, as man’s burden (chalepa ta kala). And much later, Argiri Emmanuel in his book Unequal Exchange in 1972 accepted this as a reason why some peoples get ahead and then demand from others that they should have more for less. It seemed to me from my bird’s eye view of Africa’s deserts and tropical forests, compared with Europe’s patchwork of fields and woods, that almost the opposite was the case. Africa’s harsh environment must have made development difficult, but encouraged special indigenous strengths.
Climatic and geophysical conditions were certainly much more difficult in most of Africa than in Western Europe, North America, Japan and many parts of India and China and South America. If, as the anthropologists tell us, human beings had survived through a combination of the competitive instinct and the cooperative, then I supposed that greater cooperation would be demanded in the harsh conditions of Africa and similar lands. Competitiveness could develop unrestrained in the easier lands and encourage enormous inventiveness in industry and commerce, until in our time it has reached the point of self-destruction in its disregard for the whole ecosystem of the planet. While the scale was still small, the competition of capitalism was marvellously productive and for a time even looked beautiful on the banks of Europe’s little rivers. The dark Satanic mills were to come. As I wrote about all this, I could raise my eyes to the painting above my desk of Swanbourne Mill at Arundel where one of my Quaker ancestors in the Eighteenth Century minded the water wheels that ground corn and drove other machinery for the needs of his landlord, the Duke of Norfolk. Africa was evidently different.
Most of these ideas had already appeared in my first book, entitled After Imperialism – an optimistic title that reflected its times, the early 1960s when African states were achieving independence. An association of non-aligned states had been formed at a meeting in Bandoeng, including Nkrumah from the newly named Ghana, Nehru from India, Goulart from Brazil, Sukarno from Indonesia, Ben Bella from Algeria, Kassim from Iraq, Nasser from Egypt, Tito and Fidel Castro . So, it seemed to me to be possible to propose a policy of “positive neutralism” to an incoming Labour government in Britain, which would have involved an expansion of trade between a non-aligned bloc including Scandinavia and most of the British Commonwealth as an alternative to the European Common Market. The proposal was instantly denounced as ridiculous by Dick Grossman, then a Labour cabinet minister. My book, nevertheless, had a modest success and was translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. But an attempt to call a conference in 1963 on problems of imperialism led to the gathering of just four people. It was not until the revolt of the students in the late 1960s associated with protest against the war in Viet Nam that the issue of imperialism began to attract wider interest. A new effort in 1970 to call a conference in Oxford resulted in the participation of several hundred people, mainly students, and the publication of the papers from the conference in a widely read book, Studies in The Theory of Imperialism, edited by Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe. The time seemed ripe for a more extended work than the essay I had contributed and my Economics of Imperialism appeared in 1974 as one of Penguin’s Modern Economics texts under the general editorship of Kenneth Alexander, to whom I am greatly indebted both for his trust in me and for his editorial guidance. The book was a response to a rising wave of criticism of economic explanations, while maintaining a firm stance in political economy. It became a standard work at universities, while political economy was still regarded as a proper subject for study, and several translations were made.
By this time, even by the time of a revised edition of After Imperialism in 1970, all the Bandoeng leaders had died or been overthrown. Positive neutralism was dead. Britain was set to enter the Common Market. The pall of monetarism was spreading over governments and academia alike. It is hardly being torn aside today, to open up thought again after a decade and a half of economic disaster for much of the world, particularly the Third World and above all for Africa.
The central message of my books had been that the people of the Developed Countries as well as those of the Colonies had suffered from the unequal relations of exchange established between them. Having an empire was one thing for those who received the profits or found employment in the colonies or benefitted from cheap imports. It was something else for those who fought the wars and those who were unemployed because of the reduced purchasing power of the impoverished colonial producers This became most obvious during the 1930s, but throughout the Nineteenth Century it had been the actual economic development not only of Western Europe but of the self-governing dominions and the USA which provided the markets for British exports of goods and capital. The tribute from India financed the imperial armies and the Indian administration but rendered the Indian people a poor market for British goods.
At the same time I had to remind myself that there were capitalists and an aristocracy of labour in Europe and an elite in India and the colonies, of landowners, merchants and middlemen, who all benefitted from the colonial trade. It is a most misleading conceptualisation that distinguishes rich developed countries and poor developing countries without recognising the very wide inequalities in each.
The African Traders
When the colonies gained their independence, it soon became clear that it was often a colonial elite which inherited power and had every reason to continue the colonial trading system. Even when there was no such trading elite, the new governments found in the income from the export business the main source of their power and the main resource for the development programmes which they proceeded to pursue each in his own little post-colonial state. Nkrumah had cried “Africa must unite – or perish” when the Charter of Unity of the Organisation of African Unity was signed in 1963 at Addis Ababa and the green, gold and red flag of Ethiopia became the colours of many new African states.
But they did not unite. The arbitrary colonial frontiers that ignored ethnic groupings remained unchanged. Each of the over 50 one-time colonies continued to supply their particular primary product or products to their one-time colonial masters. Africans, however, sat in the government offices and took over the marketing boards or formed joint ventures with the expatriate mining companies. It was just as many of the African elite who had studied abroad had always dreamed it would be. But it was not what the African people had supposed that liberation would bring. I had understood very well the role of what was called “comprador capital” (merchant capital) in the colonies but my books were based much more on studies of India and China than of Africa. I had not understood the role or the origins of the African elite. But by this time Basil Davidson and Christopher Fyfe and others had begun their pioneering exploration of African history and the anthropologists following Levy-Strauss had begun to open up our understanding of African cultural difference. These scholars were making it very clear that it was not only Egypt and North Africa that had a long history of political, economic and cultural development but that pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africans had attained a high level of pre-industrial, iron age culture which had successfully tamed an intractable continent. It is with difficulty that one now recalls that as late as 1963 a Regius Professor of History at Oxford University was speaking of African history as “no more than barbarous tribal gyrations” and that doubts were still being expressed that Africans could possibly have constructed the walls of Great Zimbabwe.
It emerged from the studies of Basil Davidson and others that the many African kingdoms and cultures, of which Zimbabwe was but one, rose and fell, much as those of mediaeval Europe. None were so big as to unite a whole sub-continent like those that emerged in China and India. But these kingdoms comprised more than one ethnic group, and ambitious kings of warrior peoples absorbed new territories as the Normans did in northern Europe.
Just as in Europe too these separate peoples had long been linked together by ties of trade, the strongest flows in Africa moving in ships around the East and West coasts and in caravans across the great Sahara desert. There were trading links with other continents, not only across the Mediterranean, but between West Africa and Portugal, most powerfully between East Africa and Arabia and at one time extending to India, the East Indies and even China, as we noted earlier. Africa had for centuries been part of the world economy.
How then was it that the next step towards industrialisation was not taken in Africa? What happened to these early traders? The merchants of China had been destroyed by the Emperor’s edict of 1512, in India they were under the tutelage of the Mogul emperors, but in England and Northern Europe, as I argued, when the great merchant adventurers were ousted, it was industry based traders who built up an empire on the basis of free trade and not monopoly, of industry and not of commerce. Even the British banks were founded originally on industry, shipping or agriculture and not on commerce.
I have had to defend this thesis against the new revisionist school of Cain and Hopkins who have now the blessing of Perry Anderson and Will Hutton in downgrading the industrial revolution and discovering a “gentlemanly capitalism” and a dominant role for finance and not industry in the history of the British political economy including the Empire. I have less objection to Giovanni Arrighi who in his latest book The Long, Twentieth Century finds a financial phase at the end of all empires. It was certainly not how they began or rose to power.
Be that as it may, the failure of Africa, as of Spain and Portugal, in the first instance to industrialise resulted from the very success of the merchant monopolies. For this was an essential part of the significance of the Atlantic slave trade. It was immensely profitable to those who controlled it, in Europe, in America and in Africa too. Its profits distracted all initiative from other development – except in England which supplied the ships and the industrial goods, the guns and hardware, on the first leg of the three-cornered trade from England to Africa to the Americas and back to Europe. For Africa the slave trade was a disaster on every consideration: it drained the continent of millions of its most skilled and fittest young people; it diverted trade from useful exchange into a hunt for human lives; and it sowed the seeds of racism, of belief in white superiority, equally among both white skinned and dark skinned peoples. But there was worse to follow. Colonial rule by the European powers was justified in the belief that Africans were not only an inferior “race” but had no history – only “barbaric tribal gyrations”. It is the rediscovery of this history that has been the great endeavour of the growing band of African historians. For me one of the great moments in their work of historical research was their rediscovery of the Saro (Creole speaking) settlements on the coast of West Africa, founded by recaptive slaves who had created their own societies, trading successfully with Europe, building schools and hospitals, producing their own newspapers and theatres, providing the colonial doctors, administrators and judges, even governors, believing that they would one day inherit the leadership of a liberated Africa. For here was the proof, to stand alongside evidence of the parliament of the Asantes, which the British colonial occupation forces discovered, to demonstrate finally that Africans like all other peoples had the capacityto develop their own sophisticated culture and the technical basis for the leap into industrialisation.
The Impact of Colonial Rule
Of course, it was not to be. For what I learnt from Basil Davidson and others was that in the military occupation and partition of Africa in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century the European powers set out ruthlessly to destroy and to denigrate everything that was African, wiping out African history as if it had never been. Tribes were invented and tribal chiefs elevated quite outside of Africa’s traditions of democratic control over authority. Resentment was encouraged and even active revolt stirred up among the people of the interior against the seemingly upstart Creole speaking people on the coast, to disparage and even to destroy them. Colonial governors and officers were brought out from Europe to provide the administration, the army staff, the police and magistrates and all professional posts – in the place of Africans. There was resistance in every part of Africa, according to Professor Terry Ranger, but within a generation the population was cowed and defeated.
At a stroke the possibility of development towards industrialisation was cut off. It was, as Basil Davidson has suggested, as if Japan had in fact been invaded by conquering armies at the very moment of the political revolution that launched her industrialisation, and not just by a single visiting United States cruiser, sent to explore the opening of trade relations. Japan was lucky: Europe too far away, the United States not yet ready to exercise her “manifest destiny”.
But why the occupation of Africa and its partition among the European Powers? Many historians like D.K.Fieldhouse were writing in the early 1970s to propose that this was an extension of the balance of power in Europe. Free trade rather than imperial power was the main aim particularly of the British, as I had to agree. What value could Africa possibly have to the Europeans? It was a good question. J.A.Hobson, writing at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and seeking to explain European imperialism in Africa, had asked the same question and rejected the idea that Africa’s markets could be important to British capitalists or that there was suitable land for colonial settlement of Europe’s unemployed or that Africa’s raw materials were so important, except in South Africa. He saw rather the openings for capital investment drying up at home and appearing seductively overseas, the argument that was seized upon by Lenin to illustrate his thesis of the overproduction of capital. There were certainly big profits to be made out of the mines and plantations of Africa; and European companies grew big as they were realised. But the historians were perhaps right to ask whether this was all?
Joseph Schumpeter in his 1919 essay on The Sociology of Imperialism had seen empire as a hangover of a pre-capitalist society, involving a rhetorical appeal by men like Disraeli – a “catch-phrase”, he called it – “to arouse the dark powers of the subconscious” and to divert attention from economic difficulties at home. We have seen this more recently in Mrs Thatcher’s Falkland adventure.
But Disraeli did buy shares for Britain in the Suez Canal and his generals did occupy large parts of India and Africa. There is in fact oil around the Falkland islands. Ofcourse, in Africa as elsewhere, the generals and the colonial officers, and the settlers also, often pushed the home government further than it wished to go, but the steady pressure was there all the time from European industry, to open up markets and fields of investment everywhere and to find supplies of cheap raw material imports to sustain their profits.
It became clear, however, that supporting all this there was what I came to think of as a culture of imperialism. Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism appeared very much later but it confirmed with great scholarship and wisdom what I believed. The economics of imperialism were clear to me, but as a Marxist I rejected a reductionist economics. Changing human consciousness, I argued at the end of my Penguin text on The Economics of Imperialism, was the result of insoluble contradictions in society, which only such a change could resolve. Imperialism was riven with contradictions, of which the greatest was the boomerang effect of colonial exploitation on employment at home, the impoverishment of producers who were also consumers, but another, perhaps no less important, was the debilitating cultural corruption of a society based upon exploitation.
This was then the backcloth to the economic pressures on Africa which had become clear to me from studying Africa’s trading relations with Europe. Even when the one time colonies achieved independence the colonial pattern of trade was held in place, each country producing the one or two commodities which had been assigned to it in colonial times. But now the producers did not even have the colonial powers to support expatriate companies in each colony to manage the market so as to protect their prices. Commodity producers in each of many African and other countries could be divided and conquered by the giant transnational companies like Nestle and General Foods and Unilever.
So long as commodity prices remained high in the post-war boom years of industrial recovery in Europe, there were incomes for the new African governments to devote to building their palaces and fine offices and embarking upon industrialisation. When the slump of the 1980s followed, commodity prices collapsed and with them the basis of their power, since they had failed to diversify from the staple exports of colonial times. Those that were not oil producers had to borrow in Europe and North America to pay for oil imports, whose prices stayed relatively high compared with the prices of coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar, cotton and even of copper and iron ore which they had to export in exchange. The incubus of foreign debt with rising interest rates descended upon Africa; and for more than a decade standards of living fell.
The Failure to Industrialise
How was it, however, that the countries of Africa had failed to industrialise and diversify exports, as East Asia had, during the years of high commodity prices? The answer from the very nature of European colonial rule was blindingly obvious, but for long not understood in the great financial institutions of the world. It was not just, as the institutions supposed, that the governments had been drawing too high a rent from their commodity exports and indulging luxurious tastes, even salting the money away in Swiss bank accounts – this was only a part of the problem – but that they were stilltied to a European-centred model of development that was wholly inappropriate, especially for over fifty mainly small and only very loosely connected nation states. The model, as we have seen, consisted of the export of raw materials and the import of European machinery and intermediate semi-manufactures, together with European technicians, with little thought being given to the use of African intermediate products, the training of African technicians or the encouragement of African cooperation. Even after their independence was gained, the one-time African colonies found that if they processed their primary commodities they faced escalating tariffs in European and American markets rising with each degree of value added. Although some concessions were made by European governments to their ex-colonies, only Japan carried out a policy of encouraging the processing of commodities in its onetime empire – and this is a major reason why South East Asia is a region of growing prosperity in marked contrast to the economic decline in Africa. By means of internal transfer pricing, moreover, the great transnational mining companies pay in effect less for the raw materials exported from Africa and charge more for the machinery imported than the reigning world market prices. The result has been a permanent flow of tribute from the South to the North, which was barely offset by international aid.
Although Japanese policy was different in Asia, it was not much different in Africa when Japanese machinery and intermediate products were imported. The scale was inappropriate to such small markets and the absence or excessively high cost of spare parts and local workshops for repairs meant that Africa was soon littered with unusable white elephants – not, as one wit commented, an endangered species. Similar mistakes were generally made also by the aid agencies, and the Africans were blamed for failure to make proper use of what they were given.
On top of this the World Bank made a succession of most damaging errors. First they financed the construction of large-scale projects – vast ranches and plantations and worst of all huge dams and combined hydro-electricity generation and irrigation schemes. These not only drowned the housing of whole communities and their farm lands; the lakes soon silted up, disturbed the flow of rivers below the dams, encouraged irrigated farming of export crops at the expense of local food crops and provided electricity mainly for the elite of the cities and not for rural development. Second, and even more serious, the World Bank and the IMF required that African countries in debt should step up their commodity exports to pay off their debts. Since all were encouraged not only in Africa but elsewhere to do the same thing, stocks built up and commodity prices fell still further than they already had. Finally, the Bank and the IMF introduced structural adjustment plans as a condition for providing loans to cover debt payments, and these plans were based on the assumption that government taxation and spending should be cut back so that private investment could “crowd in” from local and foreign capital. The result was to reduce the spending on health and education and on the national infrastructure of roads, water supplies etc., which not only caused serious damage to the people, especially the least well off, but actually undermined the conditions for private investment to be successful. This was the situation which had been reached at the end of the 1980s and the question was being raised whether the World Bank and the IMF plans for Africa, which amounted to a desperate programme of “export or die”, were resulting in anything other than “export and die”. By this time I was working with TWIN and Twin Trading on projects to support small-scale farmers and artisans in the Third World in their attempt to organise themselves to strengthen their desperately weak position in the world market.
As part of this work I was commissioned by the Transnational Institute of Amsterdam to prepare a study of the actual position in the world’s markets of the commodities which Africa was offering for export and which the World Bank was pressing African countries to expand, in order to pay off their debts. Pauline Tiffen joined me in writing up the results of the study, and the book was published in 1992 under the title of Short Changed; Africa and World Trade.
What was revealed in the study was that, with the exception of fuel oil, gold and diamonds, world demand was falling for the commodities which formed Africa’s staple exports and furthermore that Africa’s share in the markets for these commodities was declining. There were several reasons for the fall in demand – the general world-wide slump in demand that followed the oil price hike, the income elasticities of demand that were falling as people in the Developed Countries spent more of their rising incomes on services and not on goods. At the same time the reduced weight of material incorporated in the finished products of modern industry, combined with the substitution of artificial for natural materials and the recycling of waste, both of minerals and of paper, further to reduce the demand for natural materials.
Africa’s declining share of a declining market for its staple commodity exports also had several causes. One was the application of bio-technology to the cloning of coffee and cocoa trees in the giant companies’ large scale plantations in what had been tropical forest in Malaysia and Indonesia. This had been encouraged by the World Bank and was undercutting the small-scale farmers. But in Africa low prices over a long period had led to failure to replace old trees and to a general decline in good husbandry and quality control. Declining standards had been exacerbated in some countries by the destruction of old forms of peasant cooperatives and their replacement by state or, in effect, Party controlled organisations.
The Struggle for Fair Trade
It was not difficult to identify what was wrong, but getting it right did not seem so easy. Back in the 1960s we all believed in planning and saw in the computer the answer to many of the computational problems of the planners. I greatly feared that the giant transnational companies would have all the big computers and make all the plans and that at the same time the European Common Market was being set up for them. Some of us in the Labour Party organised a conference to promote an alternative EFTA-Commonwealth trading bloc associated with the Soviet Union on the basis of democratically planned trade. The doyens of Keynesian thought of the day, Professor Joan Robinson of Cambridge, Roy Harrod of Oxford and Professor Ragnar Frisch of Oslo presented papers. Ragnar Frisch’s paper was entitled “A Multilateral Trade Clearing Agency”, which was to build on the success of the European PaymentsUnion in providing a mechanism for expanding trade exchanges between the First and Third Worlds. Joan Robinson explained the importance of the proposal made at the first UNCTAD meeting in 1964 by Professors Hart, Kaldor and Tinbergen that stocks of commodities held by primary producing countries should be deposited with the international financial institutions in lieu of gold and hard currency, as collateral for financing their foreign trade.
All these ideas were directed towards the expansion of international trade on a planned basis but without bureaucratic control from above. Qf great importance was a paper circulated at the conference from Dr Andreas Goseco of the FAO, which he had submitted earlier to the UN Economic Commission for Africa. This was for a “Supplementary Payments Mechanism to Promote Trade among Developing Countries”. It was designed to facilitate multilateral bids and offers of products from different countries through a computerised central exchange or clearing union. It would avoid market anarchy and its alternative, the organisation of trade by the giant transnational companies. It never got off the ground. The monetarists replaced Keynesian planning with their belief that the liberalisation of trade and currency convertibility would solve all countries’ problems of trade and payments. Twenty years later it was obvious that such liberalisation might work for some, but not for all and that those it failed were among the poorest and most indebted in the world. To return to my own voyage of discovery, in 1984 I retired as Principal of the Northern College and offered myself for work with the Greater London Council, where Robin Murray was head of the Industry and Employment Department. I was determined to find a way of linking solutions for the problems of growing unemployment in London with Third World development and envisaged a possibility of direct exchanges between producer cooperatives in both the First and Third World. We set up a trading company, Twin Trading, and got funding from the GLC to form a charity, Third World Information Network (TWIN). But the model I had imagined for linking North and South was wrong, especially for Africa where we had some of our first contacts. London’s cooperatives did not produce what Africans wanted in the way of machinery and equipment and we could not dispose of any large quantities of Africa’s products.
The key issue we had to grapple with lay in the very nature of the Third World’s trade. For a long time to come, nearly all African states, like other Developing Countries, will have to export their primary commodities to pay for imports of equipment to modernise and industrialise, and so diversify their production, even if they choose to do this in a different way from the Northern model. The first step was for producers of the several primary commodities to get together, not only in Africa but more widely, and find ways to challenge the power of the big buyers in world markets. The second was to improve the quality of Africa’s staple exports and begin to add more value to them in Africa, rather than leaving all the processing to be done in the Developed Countries. This could make for a fairer trade exchange. I had written a book at the end of the 1980s about “Fair Trade” which was very slow in being published. It had the aim of encouraging the consuming public in the North to use its purchasing power to give the Southern producers a better deal and help them to get organised. Everyone except my friend Teodor Shanin and the late lamented Nigerian scholar and revolutionary Claude Ake’ told me that peasants could never beorganised, but these two convinced me and my colleagues in TWIN that there was hope.
Even before the book was published, they were proved right and all our hopes were realised in a gathering in London in March 1992 of coffee farmers from South and Central America and the Caribbean and from Africa. They represented altogether a million families from 23 different organisations, large and small, in 13 different countries. Their meeting in London was the culmination of a long process of bringing together small village organisations into wider cooperatives. It was almost certainly the first time that such an international gathering had occurred and it must take its place in history with the first meeting in London in 1864 of the Working Men’s International Association. Some of the delegates, indeed, took time off to pay homage at the grave of Karl Marx.
While in London these coffee farmers established the Small Farmers Cooperative Society, dedicated to getting a better deal for their product, which was fetching in the market less than half of the average price a decade earlier, barely enough to cover the cost to the farmers of production without allowing anything for their labour. The Society received some finance from the aid agencies and set up an office in London, alongside Twin Trading, to keep them informed on movements of prices and to help them with marketing their coffees.
Some of these coffees were already being sold in Holland and in Belgium through the Max Havelaar Foundation and in the UK through OXFAM and Traidcraft shops and through the Equal Exchange Company’s distribution. A beginning had also been made by these three together with Twin Trading in selling the Cafe’direct brand in the UK, and the gathering became the occasion for the official launching of the brand, in the supermarkets, which was to become very successful and quite changed the bargaining position of many coffee farmers who no longer needed to sell at whatever price was set by the single buyer who came to their farms, when the harvest was ready.
After fuel oil and diamonds, coffee was and remains the largest single export earner of Africa’s commodities . But by no means all the coffee growers in Africa were associated with the Small Farmers Cooperative Society. Involving others was going to be a long haul, given the historic language divisions and different market orientation of producers in one-time British, French and Belgian colonies, but a beginning was being made.
The confidence gained by membership of the Society and by their strengthened marketing position led to a much larger, more important development. Nearly all the coffee growing countries agreed together in 1994 to follow a policy of retention of supplies, to maintain prices in the same way that the oil producing countries in OPEC had done. There were many other primary commodities of importance to Africa, however, where no such agreement had been reached and where the old commodity agreements with the consuming countries had broken down. How could fair trade be made to apply to them?
The most obvious commodity with which to follow coffee was cocoa, Africa’s next most important export after oil, diamonds and coffee. Cocoa like coffee is grown in Africa by small farmers, is a product with which the consuming public in the North can identify and which had like coffee also been recently released at World Bank insistence from the total control of state marketing boards. It was expected that large companies, whether local or expatriate, would jump in to occupy the space vacated. The question was whether farmers’ own organisations could not take advantage of the opening? Ghana and the Cote d’lvoire are the two largest cocoa producers and Ghana was historically the most important with the best quality beans. There was no existing cocoa farmers’ organisation in Ghana capable of taking over the collection of beans, which the Marketing Board had relinquished. But one was discovered by TWIN in process of formation. It was given help with initial finance and logistics and with training for members of the village societies involved and its success will be described later. The next step was obviously to engage consumer support as in the case of cafe’direct.
An African Road to Development
These small successes set against the total disaster for Africa in world trade, which the book on Africa’s trade had revealed raised a question whether we had perhaps struck a vein in African culture, deriving from that necessity for cooperation in a harsh environment, one that had been neglected but could be worked to discover a whole new way forward for African development. I decided to try to find out what Africans themselves had been saying and doing about problems of development. TWIN had obtained funding to send several hundred copies of the book Short Changed to selected African addresses, mainly to academics, government officials and NGOs, with a request for comments and had received about a hundred extended replies, nearly all encouraging us to produce a sequel that built on African experience. It turned out that there were thousands of reports of African experience of development, many of them positive describing successes or drawing positive lessons from failures. Many were written by Africans themselves. I found a treasure trove in the reports of seminars and conferences of Africans organised by the Institute for African Alternatives in London. To my great surprise the World Bank itself had not only gathered many varied African opinions together in conferences and symposia on aspects of African development but had given space in its multi-volume Background Papers on The Long-term Perspective for Sub-Saharan Africa and in its technical reports to such unconventional writers as Claude Ake’, George Ayittey and Mamadou Dia.
I learnt also very much from sympathetic writers from outside like Basil Davidson, Paul Harrison, Lloyd Timberlake, Terry Ranger from Britain, Janet MacGaffey, Fiona Mackenzie, Ben Wisner from the USA, Jacques Bugnicourt, Rene’ Dumont, Bernard Lecomte from France, Piet Konings from Holland and many others who had sought to bring authentic voices from Africa to their readers. And I had a special resource in reports on grass roots initiatives in Africa collected for the FAO Freedom from Hunger Campaign journal Ideas and Action. Qf course there must be a question mark over anything described as an “authentic African voice”. My selection was biased by the very unconventional nature of the people I chiefly consulted. But when I consulted more conventional opinion, it did not so much contradict what my voices were telling me, but rather appeared to ignore or evade the dreadful realities which all the officialreports and statistics of the national governments and International Financial Institutions alike were revealing and my own commodity studies had confirmed.
Moreover, I was able to read the whole series of conference reports, which had been drawn up by the UN Economic Commisssion for Africa (UNECA) under the leadership first of Robert Gardiner and then of Adebayo Adedeji. I could study the Lagos Plan of Action of the Organisation for African Unity and the succession of OAU conferences – on Women, on the Environment, on Human Resources, on Population Control, on Popular Devlopment, on Private Sector Cooperation – which had provided the basis for the monumental African Alternative to Structural Adjustment Programmes: A Programme for Transformation and Recovery which was prepared in 1989 by the UN ECA as its considered response to the World Bank and the IMF.
It became perfectly clear to me that there was an “African Alternative Road to Development” which Africans at many levels of society had thought about and come to understand and which the World Bank and the IMF had quite deliberately thwarted. This was perhaps not surprising since the alternative was built upon indigenous African cultural strengths which colonial rule had suppressed but never wholly destroyed. Most Europeans had not troubled to understand or recognise these indigenous strengths and had often confused them with so-called “traditions”, e.g. of chiefly authority, which had overlaid indigenous practices. It was evident that European agronomists had come to recognise that agricultural practices in temperate climates with deep soils were wholly inappropriate to African conditions, with shallow soils and heavy rains, and that in their own lands African farmers knew best, but could do with some help with equipment to replace back breaking hoeing and transport in head-loads.
European economists, however, had not recognised the strengths of longstanding indigenous African cooperative practice in social and economic organisation. And industrialists imagined that they could just transfer modern European technology to Africa without adaptation in consultation with local people. All the studies I made looking particularly at the works on African industrialisation of Samuel Wangwe of Tanzania and of Roger Riddell and others showed that this was mistaken.
So what were the indigenous African strengths that had been neglected? I found that they were nothing less than what Claude Ake’ had called “the forgotten alternative -the ordinary people of Africa” and what he saw as “the participative tendencies of African culture”. As Adebayo Adedeji wrote, introducing the “African Alternative”,
“The orthodox development paradigm anchored development to things and not to people. The central emphasis was put on capital, particularly foreign capital. Even its ‘export-as-the-engine-of- growth’ hypothesis saw export as the source of foreign exchange earnings or as liquid capital for the import of physical capital and other ‘things’ for development.”
By contrast, the emphasis of “the African Alternative” was on “human-centred development”, as was argued in the Introduction to “the Alternative” which recognised”African perceptions of human beings as the fulcrum of development, the extended family for the cooperative spirit of self-help development and traditional sanctions on leadership.”
The implication was that the development of men and women – through education, health and participative systems – had to be seen as the means for development and not as the end. It could not be sacrificed for some conjectural increase in productivity as was happening under Structural Adjustment Programmes.
There was a further implication in the African view of participation. For Africans, as Claude Ake’ expressed it, participation was seen as a process, not the exercise of a right. “It is a matter of sharing tangible things, namely the rewards and sacrifices of community membership.” These are much more than the “things” – capital and export earnings – which Adedeji had questioned as the be-all and end-all in the conventional development paradigm. They are things of the spirit.
Of course this form of participation did not imply some selfless abnegation of financial rewards, but it did emphasise the Africans’ sense of community as “belonging to an organic social whole” in Ake’s words, in which “the point is to find one’s station and its duties, not to assert one’s interests and claim rights against others. And since men and women will support what they believe to serve their communities”, Ake’ insisted that, “participation will always be linked to sustainability.”
The hard struggle to survive in a generally hostile natural environment on the African continent had put a premium on cooperation and, as Ake’ put it, made African peasants more than others “sensitive to the realities on the ground, especially ecological factors, which [they] seem even more concerned about than ecomomic factors.” It was clear that, even if no other arguments prevailed in defence of the African approach to development, the appeal of the conservationist instincts of the African farmer must carry weight.
I found that much of Claude Ake’s insight was strongly supported by the Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey, again rather surprisingly writing in the World Bank’s Background Papers to its Long-Term Perspective Study from a rather different school, but extolling the indigenous African economic systems, which he claimed were “emphatically capitalistic”, but not “invented by Western colonialists:
“The type of capitalism practised in Africa,” Ayittey wrote, “was of a different variety, however. Profit was not appropriated by a single individual or by corporte owners, as in the West. Nor was it appropriated by the state, as in the East. In indigenous Africa, profit was shared between the owners and the workers. For want of a better term, we may characterise this as cooperative capitalism. The indigenous political system was democratic.”
There were other Africans from different backgrounds with similar views. I had heard much earlier of the “Beyond Hunger Project”, founded by the African writer, Chinua Achebe, and a small group of African intellectuals at a workshop held at Kericho in Kenya in 1987. They had boldly proclaimed an African Vision for the year 2057. By that time, as they staked their belief, the grass roots movements in the countryside and the local initiatives of the informal economy in the towns would have created a new kind of developed society in Africa. Compared with the conventional wisdom of theNorth, they claimed that their conception was dialectic and not unilinear, their methodology inductive and not deductive; their vision people-intensive and not capital-intensive.
Within a year of the Kericho workshop the UN Economic Commission for Africa had gathered together in Khartoum more than 200 leading African scholars to present papers and to debate a declaration on “The Human Dimension of Africa’s Economic Recovery and Development”. This became the Khartoum Declaration, which laid the basis for the African Alternative published in the following year. It openly celeberated in Africa
“the vitality and human creativity which strive and flourish in spite of everything. The large cutbacks and constraints of government and urban production have stimulated communities to devise their own solutions to the problem of meeting their own basic human needs. Self-help groups abound in every country; the extended family, though strained, has often provided the means of survival of many of its members; examples of community action can be found in almost every village.”
And among the many specific recommendations appeared
“the development of the informal sector which has a high potential for employment creation in African countries and is a rich and fertile ground for the development of indigenous entrepreneurship.” But was it?
Are we all Romantics?
The UNECA “African Alternative” had been dismissed from the right and from the left alike because it ignored or undervalued the capitalist market – from Professor Pickett because the market was the most desirable way of advance, from Professor Leys because while undesirable it was the only way until the whole “ideology of the market” comes to be rejected. Until then, African proletarianisation, which colonial rule had interrupted, would have to continue. Claude Ake’ and Basil Davidson, they said, were romanticising. Increases in productivity could not arise from either household production or the informal eonomy.
Was it, then, all romantic rhetoric coming from Achebe, Ake’, Ayittey, and equally from French speaking Africans like Hassan Zaoual, in their different ways expressing their belief in an “African way” – in the Lagos Plan of Action, the Khartoum Declaration and all the 29 firmly practical measures proposed in the UN Economic Commission’s “African Alternative”? Was it remotely possible to make agrarian and small town life once more attractive and stem the flood of young Africans into the mega-cities?
What was I to conclude? Did the grass roots self-help groups exist as more than a minority culture? Could they increase their productivity? Was the extended family surviving after wide-spread migration to the towns? Was the informal economy more than a black market parasitic upon formal activities? Could it throw up an indigenous entrepreneurship? Was it just all a dream of a William Morris type News from Nowhere society emerging from the swarming shanty town populations that surrounded Africa’s burgeoning cities? Would the proposed return to the countryside result in anything better than the ghastly tragedy of Cambodia? Was there time to stop the economic disasters which had generated ethnic violence in Sudan, Somalia, Liberia and genocide in Rwanda from enveloping other African countries? These were hard questions but all that I found in my studies of reports from the grassroots of rural Africa and from the informal urban economy gave me hope. It was not just rhetoric, and the greatest hope lay in the women, who had for so long born the main burden of sustaining Africa’s economy, while their men were taken for slaves and later forced to migrate to work in the mines. Women’s self-help really was a powerful force, not just in the countryside but in the urban economy. The great leap forward from the digging stick and the water pot to ploughs and pumps was taking place in many places and a blend of new and emerging technologies with older labour intensive systems was disproving ideas of their incompatibility. Small farmers were organising their own improved processing and marketing. Where there were telephone lines and electricity supply, computers and fax machines could be found side by side with the simplest tools, head carrying and outdoor jua kali workshops. Modern banking systems lived alongside the “tontine” and “susu” savings clubs.
What was so encouraging was the increasing recognition even in World Bank publications of the absolute need to rescue the indigenous African genius for cooperation in group loyalty and social solidarity from the competitive individualism and bureaucratic stuctures that had overlaid it as a result of colonial rule and its sequel. It was indeed the Bank which published in 1995 Mamadou Dia’s explanation of
“a structural and functional ‘disconnect’ between informal and indigenous institutions built on the region’s history and its culture, and formal institutions mostly transplanted from outside”.
Dia had presented the evidence in his book, Africa’s Management in the 1990s and Beyond taken from a number of case studies. These together with my own studies revealed micro-enterprise as an important pillar in the development of the local private sector in Africa.
It was an uneven picture that emerged but it seemed to me certain that the flourishing organisations I knew – the cocoa farmers in Ghana, the coffee farmers in Uganda and Tanzania, the fruit farmers in Burkina, the vegetable growers in Senegal, the peanut farmers in Eritrea – were neither exceptional nor would their efforts fail to be replicated elsewhere. They were not escaping from the market but they were no longer being destroyed by it. They were in it but against it, fighting against its destructive tendencies to find their own alternative solutions. Above all here were different African peoples working together in common endeavour, and not fighting each other. This sounds good, but time is running out. Unless the burden of foreign debt which weighs heavily upon all the poorest of African states is soon lifted, it will be too late for anything but fighting, some of it hopefully to create an opening for rejuvenation, some of it hopelessly and pointlessly destroying lives without aim. After Sudan and Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda have come Algeria and Burundi. One common factor is often overlooked, but could quite easily be discerned linking these tragedies together. All these countries had accumulated foreign debts exceeding their national incomes and requiring over a third of their annual foreign earnings to service. When so much of the national income is exported, payments are made for goods produced for export without goods being available for purchase inside the country. Prices rise and inflation becomes cumulative until local currencies are worthless. Those who have access to a foreign currency from their work or connections, from smuggling or plain theft can survive. The rest must suffer or else steal or in the end even kill to get by. Ethnic or national differences long forgotten come to the surface, especially if some group, as with the Christians in Sudan or Algeria or the Tutsis in Rwanda-Burundi, or the Croats and Slovenes in Yugoslavia, has held a privileged position with a one-time colonial power. It only needs the activities of foreign arms dealers and mercenaries from the North and a struggle for control of scarce resources like oil to create a situation that gets out of control.
It appears to be inescapable that many countries of Africa are being held by the great powers in this position for ideological but also for strategic reasons. The United Nations and the industrialised countries that dominate its organisations are often criticised for their failure to intervene effectively to prevent or to terminate civil wars. The real charge against the UN institutions and the great powers is, in my view, quite different. This is first that they did nothing to bring the natural resources of the world under international control. The fight for control over dwindling resources, and especially oil, was obvious enough in the Gulf War, but could be discerned behind the Falklands War and the war in Biafra and now increasingly clearly behind the war in Angola and the propping up of Mobutu in Zaire and the whole ghastly spread of tragedy across Rwanda and Burundi.
The second failure of the great powers is that, while they eased the debt problem for their own banks by tax concessions, they continued to demand their pound of flesh from the poor African debtors. Yet, both the IMF and the World Bank have ample resources to wipe out these debts, at least for the poorest countries, if the major powers themselves would agree to ensure that this was done; and the result would be to expand the whole world’s trade. The weakening of demand in the South due to debt servicing to the North in the 1980s was estimated by UNCTAD in its Trade and Development Report 1995 to have cost directly some 7 million man years of employment in Europe.
If the debts of the poorest countries were thus dealt with, it would still be necessary for the World Bank and the IMF to change their policy towards Africa and begin to treat with continental and regional organisations in consultation with representatives of the people themselves, which they are required by their statutes to do but have never done. The campaign of Aid Agencies and Third World campaigning groups in 1994 on the fiftieth anniversary of Bretton Woods under the slogan of “Fifty Years is Enough” listed a major programme of reforms required in World Bank and IMF practices to make them acceptable to the peoples they are supposed to help.
One more act is required from the Northern governments if Africa is to be given a chance to end dependence and to develop in its own way and that is to require the opening up to public scrutiny of experts the books of the giant transnational companies, to reveal the effects of their abuse of transfer pricing . In the book Short Changed: Africa and World Trade, we quoted an expert’s estimate that, if African producers, instead of being subject to unaccountable transfer pricing, had been paid the full market price for their exports and only been charged a fair price for their imports throughout the 1980s, the foreign debts of the African states would not have accumulated from an original $50 billion to the $200 billion today. – which has had to be offset by similar sums of official development aid, that is loans generating even more debt.
The Movement for Fair Trade
Ending such abuses is but one example of what is implied in the concept of fair trade and could be seen as an alternative to aid. It may be romantic to imagine such a concept in a world of giant transnational companies, whose operations are concealed behind the doors of Swiss banks and in the tax havens of the Bahamas and Lichtenstein. But the movement for fair trade is growing in the consciousness of the consuming public of the rich industrialised countries; at the same time, the organisation of the producers in the poor developing countries is growing too. Between the two of them they are beginning to create forms of direct and equal exchange that can challenge the market control of the giant companies. Support for that movement is the best contribution we here can make to the peoples of Africa. As one of the leaders of Africa’s NGOs, Mazide N’diaye of Senegal, put it very bluntly, introducing a TWIN booklet on Fair Trade:
“We do not want charity because it demeans. With the money earned from trade you can buy what you want. You cannot demand what you need from people who are helping you.”
It’s a long road but a start has been made towards a new way of fair,trade through equal exchange and producer and consumer organisation.
Success on a small scale in pioneering the African alternative has demanded village education in discovering new frameworks for developing trust and solidarity, a mix of technology appropriate to the purpose, and new forms of NGO-Government-producer cooperation. One example can be given from the 1996 Report of the Managing Director of Twin Trading on the progress of Kuapa Koko, a Ghanaian farmers’ own cocoa trading company, incorporating significantly several of the African peoples in Ghana:
“Kuapa Kokoo is the only farmer owned and run cocoa company in Ghana since the liberalisation of the internal market for cocoa in 1993. It was set up and is run with the assistance of Twin Trading. After three years in operation, with around 5000 farmers and trading 4000 metric tonnes of export grade cocoa per harvest, it has overcome much prejudice experienced in the early period as a farmer oriented operation and is now recognised as the number one (except in size) of the highest performing cocoa trading companies. Kuapa Kokoo is profitable, is paying a healthy bonus to members and delivers excellent cocoa. It has an effective operational system based on ‘just-in-time’ and village level cooperation, operational control and trust, with a rapid turnover and use of capital (the largest cost of business in Ghana withinterest rates of 45%). Its loan repayment record is second to none in the sector. Other companies in the sector are gradually being obliged to reorganise and upgrade their treatment of farmers in the rural areas.”
Kuapa Kokoo does not stand alone. Links are being made with cocoa growers elsewhere in Africa to replicate the organisation of coffee growers I spoke of earlier. World-wide, there is an International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT) with one hundred and sixty members drawn from both the North and the South, from all the continents, whose code of practice states that its members
“come together in solidarity and cast aside the traditional trading system of ‘middle persons’ to create an alternative fair way of doing business.”
Of course it is still very small . Its total business does not exceed £500 millions a year, to be compared with Third World exports of £500 billions. But it has a data base from which new trading relations can grow as we were proposing for the alternative to the European Common Market in the early 1960s. Indeed, in giving the keynote address at IFAT’s biennial conference in Kilkenny in 1991, under the aegis of the President of Ireland, I was bold enough to predict that within the decade an IF AT Payments Union would be followed by an associated Trade Clearing Union. Already one of the ethical finance houses that provides the funding for much alternative trade has begun to explore the possibility of a Payments Union.
This is not just romanticism. A one-time World Bank official, Chandra Hardy, has recommended such a union for financing intra-regional trade in Sub-Saharan Africa, which hardly exists (apart from smuggling), such is the continuing strength of the old colonial trade ties with each individual country. If the World Bank could but be persuaded to give support to such African regional projects, and indeed to All-Africa schemes, instead of only supporting nation-state programmes, this could be taken up by the Organisation for African Unity as a step towards the African Economic Community they have envisaged being in place by the year 2010.
The projects of NGOs and micro-enterprises cannot possibly in themselves compose an African way of development. What they can do was indicated in a recent four volume report by the Overseas Development Institute of London on NGOs experience in agriculture technology development in regions of the Third World. The report concluded that
“the most significant implications of their [NGOs] experience lie in the lessons they generate that have potential for being scaled up by government.”
There are many problems of doing this in overcoming national and religious differences, gender issues, class divisions and urban rural hostility. Some of the problems inherent in any such scaling up are discussed in the latest issue of the Review of African Political Economy, which does not, however, examine the encouragement of fairer trade as an alternative to more aid. One school of thought -the New Protectionism – has dismissed all such encouragement as either futile or too close to reproducing the traditional international division of labour. That leaves the question how, if self-reliance is to be complete, the developing countries are ever toafford the tools of development, even a more sustainable development, that must still include the new information technology, if they are to be totally cut off from the world outside.
What, then, is needed now is a major new research project into the future of Fair Trade and the economy of trust, to explore its theoretical foundations, analyse past experience and current practice and discover how its present small scale can be extended further into the mainstream of mass markets. It is to that which I and others have now embarked upon as a joint North-South project. In this we shall need all the support and advice of those who have come here to listen to me today and of many others, if we are to prove that we are not just a bunch of romantics. I thank you for your attention.
Michael Barratt Brown, political economist, is former Principal of Northern College and the Founder and present Chair of Twin Trading Ltd. He has written extensively on Africa, world trade and aid for more than twenty years.
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