Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

The Dream versus the Reality Self-reliant development in sub-Saharan Africa (Part 2)

By Kodwo Mbir Bullard

In the concluding second part of the article the first part of which was published last week, the writer examines the instances of self reliance practised elsewhere in the world and offers suggestions on how best Africans can apply themselves to the task of relying on themselves.
What has happened in Tanzania i.e. the increasing rather than the decreasing involvement in the international economy, should not surprise anyone familiar with the history of economic development. Economic history clearly shows that there cannot be economic development without one form of contact or another with the outside world as illustrated by the follow- ing examples. Bullion from Latin Ameri- ca and Africa played no small part in making fifteenth and sixteenth century Britain, France, Spain and Portugal great and powerful nationals that they were.

The labour of slaves from Africa made capital accumulation in the agricultural sector in the United States possible thus laying the foundations for the economic greatness of modern USA. The corollary is also true. What was a blessing for Europe and the United States was a bane to Africa and Latin America. Underdevelopment in Africa today is not unrelated to those massive resource transfers.

The success of Europe's Industrial Revolution largely depended upon cheap raw materials from Africa and India and a large overseas market that these two continents and the rest of the South East Asian world provided. Japan's current economic prosperity would not have been possible without substantial borrowing from abroad. Prior to 1972 Japan was the largest borrower from the Export-Import Bank of the United States. In 1972 Brazil captured the dubious honour and became the largest debtor nation to the World Bank.

Aside from the necessity of the foreign factor in economic growth mentioned above, there is the whole issue of colonisation. It appears that colonisation has made any talk of self-reliance palpably irrelevant for neo-colonial economies for a very long time to come. The fact of the matter is that colonialism was very suc- cessful in absorbing the economies of Sub-Saharan African countries into the global economy.

Nearly all African countries have to export one commodity or the other in order to be able to import the commodi- ties that are in demand at home. In other words operating within or outside the international economy is not a matter of choice for our economies. Our economies have been swallowed, as it were, into the global economy, and that is the milieu we have to operate within, for good or for ill. The case for the inevitability of the foreign factor is strengthened by the recent economic policy changes in China.

After Mao's isolation of China from the rest of the world for nearly thirty years, China, under Deng Xiaoping, has found it necessary to break that isolation in order to be able to address the problem of technological backwardness and low levels of material prosperity for the masses of the Chinese population. Deng's overtures to the outside world in general and with the West in particular over the past few years have been tentative and cautious. China is allowing foreign capital, technology and management methods in only four districts which have been designated Special Economic Zones.

Even a country as large as the Soviet Union which can potentially be self- reliant on account of the massive resources at her disposal, has had to depend on the West for grains to feed her population. When the United States placed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet Union turned to other Western countries for grains.

Incidentally the countries that have in recent years achieved tremendous strides in overcoming some of the problems of economic backwardness have not been countries that have been preaching self-reliance. Neither have they been countries that have tried to break away from the international capitalist system. Countries such as Taiwan, South Korea. Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil and Japan which have achieved remarkable success have done so not by rejecting the inter- national system but by consciously opera- ting within it and using it to their advantage.

South Korea for example is fast becom- ing the new Japanese by capturing overseas particularly US markets for their TVs, sound systems, cars, micro- waves and computers. The social trans- formation being brought about in Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam would not have been possible without the substantial transfer of resources from the Soviet Union and China.

It makes a lot of sense for such countries as China, the Soviet Union or the United States to aspire to self-reliance because by virtue of sheer expanse of territory and the range of resources in these land masses, each of them can establish self-centred national economies with internal demand being the primary engine of economic growth.

Conversely, it is idle for neo-colonial economies and mini states in Sub-Saharan Africa to aspire to self-reliance. Companies like Exxon and IBM or any of Fortune Magazine's top 500 corporations could very easily buy off countries like Gambia, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone whose populations presently number less than four million and whose GDPS amount to less than US $500 million individually.

Appeals to the traditional African Society as a basis for the new society by African politicians is pure wishful romanticism. The whole world is moving inexorably towards industrialisation and high-mass consumption. Any country that refuses to go along will be left behind to wallow in the quagmire of technological backwardness.

I think there is a great difference between accepting the status quo of the internationalisation or the interdependence of the modern economy, understand- ing how it works and exploiting it to your advantage AND refusing to accept the status quo although you least understand the dynamic forces within it and trying to opt out.

Countries that chose the former strategy have been able to improve their lot considerably. Countries that chose the latter, many African countries fall into this category, are presently hopelessly confounded by the fruits of their own convoluted and misdirected endeavours. CONCLUSION: WHAT TO DO In the long run it will be worth the while of Sub-Saharan African countries to concentrate their efforts on making the economic structures they presently have work. While they are learning to do this they could also be attempting to re-align and re-orient their structures in ways that would generate greater benefits for their respective populations. I will give a few examples. We do not have to dismantle the industries that were set up supposedly to produce local substitutes for imports but which ended up increasing the region's dependence on imports. Paper products, steelworks, metal products, fruit drinks, paintworks, vegetable oil mills, distillery, electronic products etc, all of which depend on imports or raw materials, spare parts and machinery.

What we have to do is to identify all the inputs which at the moment originate externally, and CREATE CONDITIONS which will enable these inputs to be produced locally. This means making it profitable for entrepreneurs to invest in the production of rubber, vegetable oils or any of the raw materials needed by existing factories.

In Ghana for example it is all very well getting loans from abroad to develop and expand the cocoa, gold and other extractive industries. We can understand why the government, with the prodding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been concentrating on these sectors of the economy. The huge loans being extracted from all over the place would have to be repaid and these extractive sectors are sure sources of foreign exchange. But this is not enough. The government is really not helping the economy if all they are doing is using the foreign loans to develop the gold and cocoa industries and in turn using the export earnings to pay back the loans and to expand the little left on importing arms and consumables.

The local economy needs to be impacted in very direct ways if the domestic economy is to experience a real stimulation and if it is to create new jobs and new income. The local economy has to be opened up. Good year-round motorable and safe roads are one of the prerequisites. And here I mean actual roads on the ground and not those on paper and in plan documents.

We should also be willing to apply our- selves to the nitty gritty of design and ex- perimentation of small systems and artifacts. I am not saying we should re- invent the wheel. That has already been done. We should learn how to make it, make it work, and be able to repair it when it breaks down using resources and means around us. Jane Jacobs has captured these two processes very remarkably in her latest book Cities and the Wealth of Nations and I will quote a few excerpts:

Economic life develops by grace of innovating, it expands by grace of import-replacing. These two mas- ter economic processes are closely related.. Furthermore, success- ful import-replacing often entails adaptations in design, materials or methods of production, and these require innovating and improvis- ing, especially of producers' goods and services. (She goes on to give the following examples)... A small shop producing tractor transmis- sions for a large manufacturer modifies the design of the transmission to suit the needs of a small manufacturer of high-quality seeders, thereby expanding his market. A machine that injects one type of plastic into moulds is modified to inject another cheaper plastic. A membrane pump used in automobiles is modified to suit agricultural machinery.

The process of design, redesign, manufacture, modification etc. and the process of learning what it entails constitute the very essence of the develop- ment process and change. These proces- ses cannot take place if our whole orientation in any situation is to import first then think later. The main point of this article is that it is not enough to shout 'self-reliance'. In fact it is a futile exercise to aim at achieving self-reliance. The important thing to do if we are to improve the material conditions in the region, is to understand the workings of the international economic system, and to exploit the opportunities within it to our advantage. That is how countries like Japan, Taiwan and all the others before us were able to make it. And that is the only option facing us if we are also to be able to break from the cycle of technological and economic backwardness and to join the ranks of the truly developing and industrialising countries.

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