Skip to content or view screen version

Africa and Development

Julian Gibson | 12.08.2010 10:49 | Globalisation | History | Repression | South Coast | World

There's plenty of discussion on how we should lift African countries out of poverty and debt. Yet it's rarely asked what the root causes of Africa's staggering poverty, and what is the role of white Westerners in it?



"Addressing poverty eradication without tackling big business is a bit like addressing malaria without mentioning mosquitoes." 

- Mark Curtis

In discussing the issue of the poverty devastating much of Africa, and the need for development, it is important to look at the root causes of poverty in the continent, the rich world’s role in it, the history of European intervention and why this is of particular concern to us. To put it another way: what are white people doing in Africa?

For centuries, Europe had been one of the cruellest places in the world; from the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish Pogroms, the burning of heretics, land enclosures, famines and constant wars, Europeans had devoted themselves to brutalizing one another, In the 15th century, the biggest mass migration in history began in the Age Of Discovery, as Europeans began to flood to other lands to escape repression and misery in Europe. This culminated in the industrial late 19th century, in the search for greater land and wealth, the colonial adventurers of Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal made their ‘Scramble for Africa’. Africa had it all: ivory, copper, gold, diamonds, tin, cotton, paper and slaves. The European powers overran the continent and carved it up among themselves. "Who”, the Africans asked, "has not seen the simpering grey men with their flags."

There was an assumed superiority of white Europeans over the black African, who was seen to be subhuman – closer to apes. ‘Human Zoos’ were established in Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London and New York for the amusement of European society. Many black people were paraded in cages alongside apes, while white Europe continued to plunder and murder their way across the continent of Africa. Asked why white Europeans conquered most of the world, nineteenth century Europeans had a simple answer to this question: white people were inherently more intelligent, more civilized than the savages of these lands. While much progress has been made in the attitudes of white people - most notably the protests and boycotts that helped end Apartheid in South Africa, in spite of Western governments and business’s continued support of the Apartheid regime. However, a hangover of this attitude still lingers in the psyche of many white people today. Certainly, the legacy of brutal colonialism still powerfully shapes our world, as it has evolved into the form of multinational corporate ‘Globalization’.

In 1944, the Bretton Woods conference took place, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank were set up, ostensibly to help rebuild Europe and Japan and to create a prosperous global economic model. Post World War II, the new global economic order was carried out. South East Asia was to be a source of raw materials for the US, the south a source of cheap labour and resources. Africa was left mainly for Europe and the fascist regime of South Africa to exploit, while the Soviet Union took control of much of Asia and the Islamic world. In 1948 US strategic planner, George Kennan stated: “We have 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period [...] is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality [...] We should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization." This is still the prevailing philosophy of those controlling the global system of ‘free trade’.

Countries in Africa were encouraged or coerced into taking out IMF loans in order to help them ‘develop’. The interest on these loans is intentionally high, so that African countries will be locked in a cycle of debt to the IMF. Debt relief is conditional on countries adopting policies dictated by the IMF and the WTO (World Trade Organization). This means pitting country against country in a 'race to the bottom' in lowering wages, reducing worker's rights, health, education and environmental regulations. Africa continues to pay back some $15 billion a year in debt. Around a fifth of Africa's debt comes from arms purchases from the UK. Meaning that Britain's arms push adds directly to Africa's already huge debt burden, which our government claims they want to reduce.

At the Live8 concert in 2005, millionaire pop stars were asking, without a hint of irony, “why is there so much poverty in the world”? They were asking the wrong question. They should have been asking “why there is so much wealth in the world”, in the face of such poverty. We decry slavery, but our global system enslaves more people than the Roman, the British Empire and all other colonial powers before us. Today just 500 corporations control 70 percent of all world trade. The world's poorest countries are worse off than in 1990. The theory that wealth would 'trickle down' to those at the bottom is a myth: the number of poor countries has actually increased. Over half the world's wealth is in the hands of just two percent of the population. This gap between rich and poor is growing, and it is no accident. Wealth cannot exist without poverty. Europe and the US are rich precisely because the poor of Africa and Asia work to keep them so. In the face of this systematic reality, the idea of ‘development’ of Africa is largely an oxymoron, unless we are referring to the development of Nestle, Shell, ExxonMobil, AngloGold, De Beers, BP and Coca-Cola.

The people of Africa do not need white people’s ‘aid’ - they’ve been suffering from that for over a century. They do not need debt relief, they need debt cancellation. And for the multinational corporations and global financial institutions to either radically change their policies, or pack their bags and go home.

Julian Gibson
- e-mail:


Display the following 2 comments

  1. Solution? — GM
  2. Reply — Julian Gibson