Re-centering Inequality in African Economic History


African economic history today lacks a literature to provide an accurate portrayal of economic growth in Africa during the decades after the Second World War. [1] The scholarly field of African Studies has exacerbated problems caused by the lack of synthetic works on African economic history or discussions of national or regional policymaking, because of its focus on localized studies often undertaken with an anthropological focus. One of the fathers of the anthropological turn in African history, Steven Feierman noted in 1999 that the success of his methodology was making it increasingly difficult to tell African history at a macro-level on its own terms. [2] 

The Consequences of A Flawed Approach

The problem is that a lack of macro or even of meso-level perspective on questions of Sudanese or Nigerian wealth and poverty encourages us to ask the wrong questions. For example, since the 1960s, scholars ranging across the ideological spectrum from the socialist Walter Rodney to the neoliberal Robert Bates have asked why Africa is so poor. Yet, new economic data, and the work of a recent generation of economic historians, demonstrates that at an aggregate level Africa is roughly as wealthy as large parts of Asia and Latin America. [3] If African poverty is not exceptional, then the scholarly discussion should shift from asking why African states are so poor to answering new questions such as why many postcolonial states tolerate such drastic levels of domestic inequality. It might be time to redirect Bates’ famous question: “Why should reasonable men adopt public policies that have harmful consequences for the societies they govern?” [4] His original question was designed to explain slowing national growth rates during the 1970s, but today we might ask it again to try to explain not slowing growth rates at the national level, but why economic policies were put in place that created localized sites of poverty and how policy officials and the societies they represent have come to tolerate such high levels of inequality.

Building on the pioneering work of two previous waves of scholarship, it is now possible to place postcolonial leaders inside of an intellectual world framed by development as a historical concept. [5] After all, Mahmood Mamdani astutely notes that for the independence generation, those who went to school during the last days of colonialism, but began their professional careers during the first days of independence that their central assumption was that “the impact of colonialism on their societies was mainly economic,” and that the coming of the postcolonial order would make economic sovereignty possible. [6] The challenge for historians who wish to understand the independence era is to distinguish the first order observations of the politicians and policymakers, who constructed their world with an alluring certainty using developmental and economic rationalities, from the second order observations that we need to make as historians about how these rationalities impact different actors’ decision-making processes, often creating contingent realities in their wake.[7] Nick Cullather argues that this distinction allows history to become “the methodology for studying modernization, instead of the other way around.” [8]

African Economic Growth and Divergence

However, even as the concepts of development theory are decentered into historical categories, economic concepts are still valuable tools in order to infer the lived conditions of historical actors. Therefore the historian of economics in Sudan finds it necessary to also tell Sudanese economic history. Intervening directly into the debate about the causes of “the African Crisis,” of the 1970s and 1980s Thomas Piketty ties African states’ relatively poor economic performance to the limited ability of these states to tax their societies. Reflecting in 2002 on the African Crisis, the World Systems theorist Giovanni Arrighi provided the following general sketch of the economic and social tragedy unfolding across the continent. He writes:

In 1975, the regional GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17.6 per cent of ‘world’ per capita GNP; by 1999 it had dropped to 10.5 per cent. Relative to overall Third World trends, Sub-Saharan health, mortality and adult-literacy levels have deteriorated at comparable rates. Life expectancy at birth now stands at 49 years, and 34 per cent of the region’s population are classified as undernourished. African infant-mortality rates were 107 per 1,000 live births in 1999, compared to 69 for South Asia and 32 for Latin America. Nearly 9 per cent of Sub-Saharan 15 to 49-year-olds are living with HIV/AIDS—a figure that soars above those of other regions. Tuberculosis cases stand at 121 per 100,000 people; respective figures for South Asia and Latin America are 98 and 45. [9]

While new economic data raises questions about when Africa’s economic recovery began or even if economic output really declined at the rates that scholars initially imagined; Arrighi’s quote captures the magnitude of the social and economic disaster that occurred across wide swaths of the African continent during the last quarter of the 20th century. Yet the failure of African economic growth is not the problem, as Frederick Cooper and Morten Jerven have recently established, “There have been moments of growth in Africa that met or exceeded the fastest contemporaneous world growth rates.” Jerven “cites parts of West Africa in the era of the slave trade, the cocoa boom in West Africa in the colonial era, and the export boom of the 1950s and 1960s, plus – more ambiguously – the recent revival of exports.” [10]

A Renewed Intellectual History for Understanding Divergent Political Economies

Paradoxically as new research raises questions about economic performance in absolute terms, the fiscal history of the African state becomes ever more relevant as a tool for understanding the yawning pockets of poverty. Piketty is largely correct in terms of the story he tells about the relationship between the state’s declining ability to collect taxes and thereby direct investment and the subsequent decline in GDP growth, though perhaps not completely for the reasons he suspects. Like many economic historians he underestimates the extent to which GDP is a proxy for the capacity of the state and overestimates the extent to which it is a proxy for actually economic activity. [11] One answer to the question about how to use time series of income as historical evidence emerges from Jerven’s argument about why the data regarding African economic performance varies so widely not just between countries but also over time for the same countries. He argues that contrary to the views of dataset users who have asserted that any inaccuracies in the numbers produced are random, and therefore can be treated as noise, the income data is biased in defined and historically contingent ways. Jerven’s work moves beyond being merely a cautionary tale about the accuracy of our historical data, into a new form of evidence about the nature and structure of the African state in its own right. [12]

Treating economic indicators as a window into the nature of the state, not primarily as a view of past economic activity, prepares us to study the variety of independent Africa’s paths towards economic development. [13] In order to study the vast divergences in the structure of political economies which have taken place across the continent, it is necessary to ground our work in a renewed intellectual history, one that takes seriously the ways in which prior experiences of colonialism, revolution, war and reconstruction, have formed the distinct infrastructures in which individual political and policy elites are grounded. [14]

That the political and policy elites of individual African states possess divergent ideas about the aims of development, which are not converging on a Western norm has been successfully demonstrated by scholars working on “illiberal development” as a distinct vision of political economy in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia and Rwanda. [15] These development models that appear alien to European or American analysts have roots that can be traced all the way back to the beginning of decolonization.

Alden Young is Assistant Professor of History at Drexel University.


[1] Anthony G. Hopkins. “The new economic history of Africa.” The Journal of African History 50.02 (2009): 155-177; Gareth Austin, “Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentrism in the Study of Africa’s Economic Past,” African Studies Review 50:3 (2007): 1-28; Robert H. Bates, John H. Coatsworth, and Jeffrey G. Williamson. “Lost Decades: Postindependence Performance in Latin America and Africa.” The Journal of Economic History 67.04 (2007): 917-943; Morten Jerven “African growth recurring: an economic history perspective on African growth episodes, 1690–2010.” Economic History of Developing Regions 25, no. 2 (2010): 127-154.

[2]  Steven Feierman, “Colonizers, Scholars, and the Creation of Invisible Histories,” in ed. Victoria Bonnell, Lynn Hunt, and Richard Biernacki, Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999): 184.

[3] GDP calculations for Nigeria are the most important factor in creating a population weighted average for the African continent. Javier Blas and William Wallis, “Nigeria Almost Doubles GDP in Recalculation,” The Financial Times (April 7, 2014). See also Morten Jerven, Economic Growth and Measurement Reconsidered in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, 1965-1995. OUP Oxford, 2014 and Morten Jerven, Poor numbers: how we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.)

[4] Robert Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981) 3.

[5] Joseph Hodge, “Writing the History of Development (Part 1: The First Wave),” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Winter 2015): 429-63 and “Writing the History of Development (Part 2: Longer, Deeper, Wider),” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 2016).

[6] Mahmood Mamdani, “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43:4 (October 2001): 651.

[7] Thanks to Onur Ozgode for this reference and the concept of first and second order observations. Nikolas Luhmann (translator Eva Knodt), Art as a Social System (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[8] Nick Cullather, “Development? It’s History,” Diplomatic History 24:4 (2000): 462.

[9] Giovanni Arrighi, “The African Crisis: World Systemic and Regional Aspects,” The New Left Review 15 (2002): 5.

[10] Frederick Cooper, Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) 32-33.

[11] Alden Young, “Are Statistics Useless? The Four Phases of the African State in the 20th Century”: Review of Morten Jerven’s Poor Numbers in Books and Ideas (November 12, 2013); Ruth Rempel, “Periodizing African Development History,” African Economic History: 36 (2008): 125-158.

[12] Jerven, “Measuring African Wealth and Progress,” Poor Numbers 33-55.

[13] Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, “An Introduction to Varieties of Capitalism,” in Peter Hall and David Soskice, Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001): 1-71; and as a framework for intra-African comparisons, see: Tignor, Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire; see also, Hannah Appel, “Toward an Ethnography of “the Economy,” paper delivered at Historicizing ‘the Economy,’ Harvard University, September 24, 2016.  

[14] Michael Woldemariam and Alden Young, “After the Split: Partition, Successor States, and the Dynamics of War in the Horn of Africa,” Journal of Strategic Studies (2016); Michael Woldemariam, “Partition Problems: Relative Power, Historical Memory, and the Origins of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 21, no.2 (2015): 166-190; Aparne Pande, Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011); C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[15] Will Jones, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Harry Verhoeven, “Africa’s Illiberal State-Builders,” Refugee Studies Center, Working Papers no. 89 (January 2013). See also Ricardo Soares De Oliveira, Magnificent and Beggarland: Angola Since the Civil War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Harry Verhoven, Water, Civilization and Power in Sudan; Elleni Centime Zeleke, “When Social Scientific Concepts Become Neutral Arbiters of Social Conflict: Reading the Ethiopian Federal Elections of 2005 Through the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s and 1970s,” Northeast African Studies 16 (1) 2016: 107-139.

Photo: Maputo, Mozambique. By Hansueli Krapf

3 thoughts on “Re-centering Inequality in African Economic History

  1. Equality should not be the subject being disputed and argued about. It is a failure to provide equality of opportunity that is of greatest and most vital significance. When the rights to the natural resources of Africa are more fairly shared, there will be no chance for greed to dominate, as it is doing today. By taxation of land values instead of earnings, purchases and capital gains, is there a chance for the progress that is being made to more uniformly apply to everybody who can make an honest effort to earn and to provide for the family.


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