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Review: Africa’s Development Impasse

Stefan Andreasson's post-development analyses offer new perspectives on African development issues.
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In Africa’s Development Impasse: Rethinking the Political Economy of Transformation, Stefan Andreasson sets himself the formidable task of adding new perspectives and ideas to the plethora of Western opinions around Africa’s “development impasse”. By providing detailed analysis of southern Africa’s potential for new strategies of political economy and transformation through a more holistic sense of “development”, and by assessing detailed case studies of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Andreasson largely succeeds.

Moving on

In the 1960s, as many sub-Saharan countries celebrated the triumph of their liberation struggles, there was a great deal of optimism that these newly independent nations would develop steadily and come to bridge their internal economic inequalities. Twenty years later, however, much of this hope had turned to pessimism. Africa’s counterparts in East and South-East Asia had been in similar positions in the 60s but by the 80s, the “Asian Tigers” had enjoyed enormous economic progress while growth rates in many African nations had been severely stunted.

During the 1990s and 2000s, development became popularised with notable authors such as Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo adding their diagnoses and prescriptions for assistance to the development conversation, speaking loudly against a tide of Afro-pessimism. But during that time scholars such as Gilbert Rist, Arturo Escobar and James Ferguson also began to question the very foundations of “development” and Western-based models of modernisation.

Stefan Andreasson’s study takes this post-development discourse a stage further. By analysing the key features of post-development theory and how they might be integrated into his three southern African case studies, Andreasson offers an empirical survey of how policies that transcend orthodox development policies based on aid, neoliberal reform and capitalist accumulation could latch onto existing southern African traditions and translate into novel policies.

Above and beyond

The book is split into two parts. Part one introduces Andreasson’s key theoretical arguments, first by presenting an historical account of southern Africa’s post-colonial development and then moving on to explain his idea of a ‘developmental nexus’, “a site of political action where state, market and societal actors converge” and work together to form socio-economic development policies as well as define what development actually entails. By arguing for more cooperation between these all too often separate actors, Andreasson argues that the compartmentalisation of development policies into solely economic or political aims ignores the opportunity that development offers for creating transformation in society as a whole.

According to Andreasson, post-development theory – the recognition that orthodox concepts of ‘development’ reflect Western hegemony – is also crucial to the creation of successful policies as he succinctly explains in Chapter 3 “Beyond Development”. He argues that to transcend limited developmental practices and their downfalls, it is necessary to make policies that are tailored to the specific contexts of specific countries; continuing with the neoliberal agenda is likely to merely exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, Andreasson criticises the Western habit of pursuing progress at the expense of the environment. Africa is modern, he argues, but its version of modernity is different from Western forms and must be treated as such.

Extreme measures

More subtly, the book is a rejection of the measurement culture that much contemporary development discourse has come to rely on. Measuring economic growth rates, predicting economic forecasts and even trying to measure happiness have become standard in the scramble for statistics and evidence. Andreasson suggests that while these things should be kept track of, the things we cannot measure are as important as those we can. Development, he argues, is a holistic pursuit that ought to involve all parts of society; it is not something to be imposed from the outside, especially where such policies are not wanted.

Perhaps the only weakness of this section of Andreasson’s argument is that he twins post-development theory with the notion of Ubuntu, the southern African philosophy of interconnectedness and generosity. Ubuntu is seized upon as the scaffolding on which post-development policies could be supported by until they find their own footing. This idea was raised by Thabo Mbeki in 2007, who wanted to root societal change in African communitarian concepts of social relations rather than fully implementing Western individualism. Andreasson’s weakness is that his discussions risk designating the concept as an exaggerated and static abstract value, leaving behind evolved and ever-changing forms of Ubuntu.

Case by case

That being said, the three case studies are excellently argued in comparatively applying his arguments to Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Analysing the unique histories and contexts of the three countries, Andreasson assesses the specific challenges faced by each individual country if holistic progress is to be made.

Post-development theory owes a lot to Andreasson, who has succeeded in grounding theory in useful case studies, using examples of pre-existing situations as the starting point for new policies to latch onto and build upon. His book is not an exhaustive study but instead provides a well-founded think piece applying innovative strands of development theory to the African continent that could take new strides in redefining, and ultimately reclaiming, development.

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