Pitfalls of the Developmental State: The Fate of the Sudanese Economic Model

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I have lately been grappling with the question of how African states came into being, not just as political, but especially economic territorial units. Connected to this are questions of how experts, especially economists came to influence and account for what became national economies. At the center of the state, economy and society are critical question of development and welfare. How did independent African countries make sense of their inheritance and what mechanisms did they deploy to transform themselves into coherent nations of multiple but entangled identities with disparate circumstance but common material goals united by the logic of a national economy? As I grappled with these issues, a great new monograph informed by an impressive historiography has arrived. The author grounds his work in an archivally based history of the transformation of the Sudan into an economic unit between the 1940s and the 1960s. Alden Young’s new book: Transforming the Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development, and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) is centred on addressing these question using the history of a territory that transformed from being an Anglo-Egyptian Sudan condominium into the independent state of Sudan.

The Ideological Making of the Colonial – and Post-Colonial – State

Young’s focus is ‘concerned primarily not with the heroes of the independence movement in Sudan, but with the officials who strove to govern Sudan after January 1, 1956’ (p. vii), the date at which that country (now separated into two countries) attained its political independence. This is only slightly misleading as Young brilliantly traces Sudan’s Anglo-Egyptian administrative history precisely to map out how colonialism transformed itself through officials that used the logic of economic development to govern and ironically further embed colonial relations of exchange in the a postcolonial setting. Among the critical questions he addresses is: what is an economy? But to address this question, Young first determines the nature of an African nation-state in which an economy is the central organ that breathes life into it. Still a problem political science has to continue examining, Young observes that ‘[d]espite all of the political and intellectual activity that aimed to find alternatives to the nation-state, it still emerged as the chosen, almost ready-made, or modular solution at independence, as one country after another emerged from European colonialism’ (p. 15). In the setting, the infrastructure of an economy had been established in ways that were difficult to reconceptualize for early planners, as the “economy” was ‘represented as a combination of the aggregate figures collected by the state’s statistical agency’ (p. 16).

To facilitate economic growth, the governments’ role was to develop infrastructure and to support policies that would encourage economic activities. Aggregate figures measured major exports, particularly cotton, in relation to domestic consumption and imports. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was then calculated based on these national income accounts to determine rates of economic growth and determine the success of the government. Building upon this analysis, Young challenges theories that only ‘imagine the African state as rapacious and predatory, with official institutions serving little purpose other than legitimization and patronage’. Although the point ‘is not to argue that postcolonial states are not rapacious’, the key thesis of the book lies in the ability of its author to use economic logic, imaginaries and infrastructures, in combination with his archival research into the Sudan to ‘question whether the study of their institutions can be dismissed so easily’ (p. 19). This background sets up what makes the book so interesting, that the making of colonial and the inherited postcolonial states was ‘chock full of ideology – framing questions of who, what, and where are worthy of receiving the resources of the state’. Added to this, I suppose, is where, why and for what purpose the state derives its resources and how, questions adequately addressed in the book in the case of Sudan.

Young traces the history of the territory from its precolonial polities to its consolidation as disparate parts of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. He argues that the governance of pre-war Sudan as separate regions with their own economies provided little space to imagine it as unified territory. Barely a country, ‘the most consequential economic impact of “indirect rule” was the creation of “the closed door policy.” [which separated northern Arabs and Africans to the south] between 1922 and 1930’. Indeed, there were prominent closed districts such as the Nuba Mountains, the Beja Mountains, Blue Nile State and parts of Darfur. The separation of Arab from African “closed districts” in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan formalized ‘a vision of the country as an economic core surrounded by semi-autonomous regional economies that, when they interacted with the core at all served primarily as labor reserves’ (p. 35).

Colonial Economic Planning and the Emergence of a Territorial Perspective

But to manage this strategic colony maintained to defend the Nile from the south-east and defend the British military bases up north, the colony had to contribute towards its sustenance while supplying the metropole with critical raw materials, and the answer came through irrigated cotton production. Such schemes as the Sudan Gezira scheme were the product of the imperial imaginary, conceived before the First World War, but only becoming fully operational after the construction of the Sennar dam and the laying of irrigation canals in 1926 (p. 36). This planted the seeds of the imagination of a Sudan territory unified as a self-contained economic unit in a post-World War Two context. A resident government, increasingly controlled by the British at Khartoum could, while meeting the interests of textile manufacturers in Lancashire allow their subjects economic activities and benefit from the taxes imposed. Colonial economic nationalism, based on British raw material and Sudan revenue needs, increasingly became anchored on developing irrigation for the expansion of cotton cultivation.

Young then expands his analysis to examine how the establishment of irrigable cotton cultivation came to become the subject of economic planning and the basis upon which a territorial perspective became entrenched by British colonial officials’ residing in Khartoum. The basis of his argument is that the state and nation of Sudan arose out of the British colonial administrators’ desire to define a self-contained economic entity that could both supply metropolitan markets in a period where Britain needed sterling markets to save on dollars, but also one that could pay its own way. If cotton cultivation was expanded sufficiently enough to sustain fiscal receipts to a state bureaucracy, then that machinery would continue ensuring that production always continued to keep the system going. If production was disrupted, then revenue to the state would be compromised. If the state did not function properly, then it would not be able to properly facilitate the development and maintenance of infrastructure necessary for production for the market.

But what was this market and how did the state maintain it? What does the nature and structure of the state mean for Sudan and what are its legacies? These questions are at the heart of the remaining chapters in Young’s book. The market, as perceived by colonial administrators was the primarily British economy in a post-Second World War context. Forces surrounding British colonial policy heavily influenced how the economy of Sudan came to be shaped and how a state arose out of it. Even as the country attained its independence, its dependency on cotton production, no longer just for Britain, but the world market which ostensibly tended to be the global north, increased.

To manage the state, accounting, quantifying production and determining tax income receipts became the basis of planning. Development was heavily anchored on ways in which production could be increased in the primary production of cotton. Earning foreign exchange became the primary motivation of state-building, and the country would borrow and invest in dams, construction of road, rail, water-based, hydroelectric and irrigation infrastructure to achieve this.

Guided by an economizing logic, the planning infrastructure was heavily dependent on calculating what could be earned from exporting cotton. So, what was transformed in Sudan by the 1960s, was not so much the colonial economy as it was the people who planned and managed it at independence. Young makes an important observation in demonstrating the extent to which economic development was at the center of state formation in Sudan, and that the only transformation worth noting before the 1960s is that of the planning regime that was inherited and which endured after independence. Crucially, his case study of Sudan provides an important example from which to appreciate developments in other contexts on the African continent.

The Role of Empire’s Currency

Young’s focus is limited to questions of planning and development in which he makes a very compelling case, but he could have engaged more with the role of currency to make his case clearer. The anchoring of colonial currencies with that of empire, and the subsequent peg against the US dollar after the mid-1940s was an important mechanism in setting up these economizing infrastructures. In this sense, then, planning is almost entirely based on earning as much of the anchor currency as possible to balance trade and maintain the value of the local currency.

In a context where prices are determined by the markets of the so called developed countries, a hard-soft currency spectrum in which anchor currencies become the basis of economic pursuits in so called developing countries endures. Primary production then strengthens the anchor currencies, while reinforcing dependency on prices and manufactured imports, all of which softens/weakens the currencies of countries such as Sudan. To sustain this relationship, African countries then formulate monetary and fiscal policies targeted at maintaining the value of their currencies and balancing their earnings to maintain required imports by producing what appeared to be their comparative advantage (but really is what the metropolitan economic centers have structured them to produce), primary products at prices exogenously determined. Although this is not as explicit as it should have been from the outset, it is very strongly implicit in the books’ discussions about statistics, GDP and planning. It is an implicit thread that runs through all the chapters.

Transforming Sudan is timeous and a must have for anyone interested in different aspects of development and economic history. His engagement with literature and fusion with primary source material to provide a picture of Sudan in a specific period helps readers imagine African economies in different contexts and at different times. It also provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate the currency of economic planning using orthodox economic tools, especially with regard to their value in African economies.

Tinashe Nyamunda is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the International Studies Group, University of the Free State, South Africa.


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