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Is Western colonization the root cause of Africa's economic lag?

Updated: May 26

To assert that colonization did absolutely not contribute to Africa’s poverty and economic underdevelopment is to engage in historical revisionism and embrace historical inaccuracy. To also claim that colonization is the only reason that made Africa poor and underdeveloped is to deny sovereign responsibility and to refuse to recognize the free will of peoples.

Thus, it is undeniable that the vestiges of Western colonization contributed to the impoverishment of African peoples. But the question to ask ourselves is; to what extent did it contribute to Africa’s socioeconomic lag?

Colonization of Exploitation vs Colonization of Settlement

The African continent has undergone two types of colonization: colonization of exploitation and colonization of settlement. Both types have largely oppressed Africans, but they have produced two drastically distinct results. Colonization of exploitation is a system of oppression in which the colonial power exploits the resources of colonized peoples. In this kind of colonization, the colonial power does not seek to remain in the colonized land on a long-term basis. Colonization of settlement, however, is a system of oppression in which the colonial power settles in perpetuity on the land that it colonized. In such a system, the colonial power incorporates its legal, political, economic, and social systems, as well as its cultural and religious values on the colonized peoples. Hence, the colonized peoples must abide by this system and new code of values and make them their own. Countries that experienced colonization of settlement are the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and most of Southern Africa.

Except for most countries in Southern Africa, the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa experienced colonization of exploitation. On socioeconomic grounds, Southern Africa is the most advanced region of the continent. This does not mean that colonization of settlement was rosy. On the contrary, it was oppressive and brutal. The apartheid system that was enforced in South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe is a pure illustration of how oppressive this type of colonization was. But the major advantage that this form of colonization had over colonization of exploitation is that the oppressed people in the colonization of settlement benefitted from a transfer of technical knowledge. Since they had to coexist and adapt to the values of the settlers, they learned in the process the mechanisms that made the settlers economically advanced.

This was not the case in the countries that experienced colonization of exploitation. In the colonization-of-exploitation system, the colonizer was only concerned with exploiting the resources of the land they colonized, then sending these resources back to their motherland and processing these resources into manufactured goods to improve the living standard of their people. Thus, the colonizers never prepared the colonized to take over once they leave. They never transferred their technical knowledge to the colonized so that the colonized could learn how the process of industrialization and scientific management works. Thus, when entering the phase of independence in the 1960s, most Africans were ill-prepared. Consequently, even though the colonizers left their infrastructures, Africans lacked the technical knowledge required to maintain and improve these infrastructures since no transfer of technical knowledge was passed on to them. This lack of technical knowledge is a major factor that contributed to Africa’s economic lag.

The Reasons for Africa’s economic lag

There are two main reasons that justify Africa’s economic backwardness and underdevelopment. The first reason is the adoption of socialism through central planning and the second reason is the inability to process raw commodities into manufactured goods.

Socialism & Economic Planning

In the 1960s, when most African countries obtained their independence, most of them opted for socialism and central planning rather than a liberalized economy. The reason most African countries opted for socialism rather than capitalism is that they associated capitalism with imperialism. Capitalism was, indeed, perceived by many Africans as the economic system of the oppressor. They viewed capitalism as a by-product of Western civilization and Western imperialism. Thus, socialism represented a system that could reflect African values and its way of life. Nevertheless, it is important to stress that not every African country opted for socialism. Some African countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, for example, opted for a market-based economy.

GDP per Capita of Ghana & Côte d'Ivoire, 1960-1980

Source: World Bank

Countries like Ghana and Tanzania took the socialist path to improve their economy. They engaged in the collectivization of their country’s resources. Their governments created state-owned enterprises that nationalized their most important economic sectors such as agriculture, industry, and finance. Instead of witnessing an economic miracle, they witnessed an economic apocalypse. This is because they mismanaged their economy. The absence of a price system led to market distortion, and therefore, planners could not rationally plan economic production efficiently. Logically, their economies failed, their income per capita was very low, and their people were impoverished. When comparing Ghana to Côte d’Ivoire between 1960 and 1980, for example, we see that Ghana’s GDP per capita was $250 while Côte d’Ivoire’s GDP per capita was over $700 on average. In fact, between 1970 and 1980, Côte d’Ivoire’s GDP per capita rose from $265 to $1,225 while Ghana’s GDP per capita during that same period stagnated. It modestly increased from $249 to $374. Socialism impoverished Africa.

Inability to Process Natural Resources

The African continent is a land extremely rich in natural resources. African countries are the largest exporters of raw commodities. However, African countries import more than they export because they do not process their raw materials. When exporting their commodities on the global market, they sell these commodities as raw commodities rather than manufactured goods.

The problem with selling goods as raw materials rather than as manufactured goods is that the country that does so has no bargaining power at the negotiation table. Countries that transform raw commodities into manufactured goods are the ones that have leverage in the price negotiation. This is because raw commodities on their own have no value since they can’t be consumed as raw products. They only have value once they are processed into manufactured goods because manufactured goods are the consumable ones. The cost of production (labor, machinery, operating expenses…etc.) is included in the manufacturing process of those commodities, and therefore, they end up becoming more expensive. Consequently, when an African country exports cocoa as a raw commodity but then imports chocolate, that country ends up paying five or ten times the price of the commodity it initially sold on the global market.

So if, for example, Côte d’Ivoire, which is one of the largest exporters of cocoa, sells ten tons of cocoa to France for $20 million, but then purchases ten tons of chocolate from France, then France will sell these 10 tons of chocolate at $100 million to Côte d’Ivoire. As a result, Côte d’Ivoire incurs a $80 million trade deficit. Thus, this is less revenue for the country. If Côte d’Ivoire processed its own cocoa, it would have to import chocolate from France or any other country for that matter, and this $ 80 million deficit could have been saved. The inability of African countries to process their raw materials into manufactured goods could be linked to the lack of transfer of technical knowledge.

Therefore, it is then fair to say that while colonization did impact Africans psychologically in the post-independence era, the economic decisions made, however, were not necessarily the deeds of Western colonization. It was a set of bad economic choices that exacerbated Africa's economic lag. To blame everything on colonization alone would suggest that Africans have no free will at all while the very essence of being human is having free will. But free will comes with personal and sovereign responsibility. Africans are human beings, they, therefore, have free will.

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