The Malformation of West Africa

In 1927, Ladipo Solanke – co-founder of the West African Students Union (WASU) – published a book in which he argued that “It took the white race a thousand years to arrive at their present level of advance: it took the Japanese, a Mongol race, 50 years to catch up with the white race, there is no reason why we West Africans, a Negro race, should not catch up with the Aryans and the Mongols in one quarter of a century.” (Solanke, 1927: 58). All that would be needed to achieve this, for Solanke, would be “a strong self-determination to take up and money to back up,” as well as active cooperation among West Africans. Sir Henry J. Lightfoot-Boston, in an article titled Fifty Years Hence, prophesied a federation of West African territories by 1976 (Boahen, 1982: 40).

The fulfilment of such grand visions has continued to elude the region for decades. West Africans, and indeed many from outside the region, have not only underestimated the difficulty of development in general and in the region in particular, but have understated how crucial it is to examine the difficulties within a regional framework.

Developmental and Regional Difficulties

In the case of the former, the worldwide development experience since the 1960s and the multitude of crises in West Africa have demonstrated that development and stability are not merely matters of “political will” or “strong self-determination”. Particularly for West Africa, there is a reason why the great empires and societies of the interior (the Western Sudan) which had the highest levels of integration with the rest of the world, elite Arabo-literacy rates and the largest empires in the pre-Atlantic period now rank the highest in poverty rates and the lowest in economic production, anglo-literacy rates, and many other measures of human development.

There is a reason why West Africa had the highest incidence of military coups in Africa following political independence (McGowan, 2003: 355); why the region is a major center of diffusive terrorism on the continent; and why it is experiencing a current climate of violence between farmers and pastoralists that is “unprecedented in modern times” (Brottem, 2021: 2). There is a reason why West Africa, along with Central Africa, has the highest transport costs and lowest transport quality in a continent which has the highest transport costs in the world (Teravaninthorn and Raballand, 2009: 17).

There is a reason why, according to the latest attempt to quantify political settlements of developing countries (Schulz and Kelsall, 2020), West Africa ranks the lowest in Africa in terms of virtually all the variables identified by Whitfield et al. (2015) as critical for industrial policy success. Yet presidential elections and development discourse within nations in West Africa continue to be dominated by simplistic narratives of “good governance”, “corruption” and “political will”.

With regard to understating the importance of adopting a regional lens, this has been the case since the late colonial period when self-government began to be extended to the colonies on a territorial rather than regional basis. The movements for West African cooperation fostered by the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), its eventual rival, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and student organizations such as the West African Students Union (WASU) and the Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique noire en France (FEANF) (Black African Students Federation in France) went into decline in West Africa as nationalist territorialism spread across the region in response to the expanded opportunities for legislative engagement which followed colonial acquiescence to some degree of self-rule (Boahen, 1982: 15). Efforts at creating regional federations, as pre-eminently envisaged by Kwame Nkrumah, did not succeed, and faded away after the fall of Nkrumah in 1966 (Serra, 2014: 21-22). Since then, “Although rhetorical support for integration exists, there is no dominant personality to articulate a vision and turn it into a crusade the way Nkrumah once did.” (Lavergne and Daddieh, 1997: 105). There is also an absence of an “integration culture” in the region, among governments, business communities and ordinary people (Bundu, 1997: 38).

Read More »

National Fiscal Redistribution as “International” Development Assistance

The histories of international development and foreign aid often focus on aid between independent nations. Williams’ (2013: 234) history of international development aid only begins from the British Colonial Development Act of 1929. Markovits, Strange and Tingley’s (2019) history of foreign aid focuses on aid between “nations” or empires. Helleiner (2014), for instance, traces the origins of multilateral development finance proposals to China’s Sun Yat-sen in 1919.

There is, however, a major problem with these histories. Their starting points reveal a methodological nationalist approach. The history of states and societies since the modern era, is however more complex. The early modern era is well known for the spate of state consolidations and national formations. It may be argued that intra-national transfers within modernizing nations may represent important forms of regional development assistance that have been left out of the consideration of the history of development assistance.

Read More »

The Sacrificial Generations of Capitalism

Screenshot 2020-02-11 at 09.28.58In this article I remind readers about the existence of “sacrificial generations” within global capitalist history. By sacrificial generation I mean a group of people at a point in time that experiences suffering with the immanent or intentional effect of changing economic, political or social conditions, which are in turn disproportionately enjoyed by another group of people at a later period in time. I identify four areas in which there systematically exists sacrificial generations:  three stages of capitalist development (state formation, capitalist property rights transition and early industrialization) and a cyclical aspect of capitalism (Polanyian-Marxian cycles). It could also be argued that the future generations which would disproportionately experience the environmental costs of past and present generations’ consumption are “climatic sacrificial generations”, but this will not be explored. Read More »

Tensions in Hegemonic Stability and Global Structural Transformation


In this article I argue that there is a fundamental tension characterizing the process of global development and structural change. Industrial policy is necessary for triggering structural change in the developing world. Yet such efforts put pressure on economic leaders to adjust structurally as well. Drawing from international relations theory, a hegemon is necessary to provide international public goods such as peace, which are critical for development to be possible in the first place. But this necessity gives the hegemon expansive powers over international institutions of economic governance; and this enables the hegemon to externalize the costs of adjustment associated with structural change in the developing world.Read More »

Revisiting the Battles and Cycles of Development

Cycles.jpegWalt Rostow (1959) infamously put forth a five-stage theory of economic development, extrapolating from the experiences of the great industrialized nations. However, as dependency theories strongly pointed out, the conditions under which those countries industrialized is significantly different from those that prevailed after decolonization. In addition to this, democratic capitalism experiences turbulence, which I argue makes development under this global system a struggle against powers and against what I call “Burawoyan Cycles”.Read More »