Since the mid-1970s, the development community has paid special attention to the prospects for sustained development on the African continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Much serious thought has been devoted to the question of why many African countries were unable to make a successful transition to a modern economy in the way many countries of South and Southeast Asia already had [World Bank, 1981, 1983, 1984]. Comparisons between Asia and Africa were frequent, and often unflattering. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the attendant rush to assist the foundering economies of the former Soviet empire, there is fear that development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa will become the victim of not only donor fatigue but also crowding out.
The received wisdom of economic development in general, and agricultural development in particular, persists in the academic and donor communities. This traditional view of economic development envisions four stages1. During the first stage, the emphasis is on institutional change, investments in new technology, the development of markets and the incentives they offer, and a major commitment to the improvement of rural infrastructure.
In the second phase, the agricultural sector is more closely linked with the industrial sector, there is continuing pressure to improve technology and incentives, and policy makers seek to improve factor markets to mobilize rural resources.
In the third phase, agriculture is successfully integrated into the nascent industrial economy. Urban consumers spend a smaller share of their incomes on food, agriculture is under pressure to be more efficient, and rural laborers start to move out of agriculture into urban jobs. Productivity of rural factors of production often lags behind that of urbanized factors, and so political problems associated with income distribution may arise.
Finally, in the fourth phase, the journey is almost complete. Agriculture becomes a small and often insignificant share of the national economy, consumer expenditures for food fall further as a share of household budgets, urban unemployment creates pressure to retain labor in agriculture, and governments are likely to begin protecting agriculture as a way of life.
Two things about this sequence of events stand out. First, the theory is informed by the historical experience in Europe, especially that of England, dating from the late eighteenth century. This story is, above all, Anglo-Saxon history in the temperate climates of Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America.
Second, this received wisdom is aggressively teleological. Progress is, by definition, industrial in nature, and it is good and proper that the agricultural labor force--and the share of national income contributed by agriculture--continue to shrink as development occurs. Even the terminology, "development," leaves little doubt as to the desired outcome. Few favor the opposite of development: stagnation, backwardness, and "underdeveloped."
The point here is not to challenge the received wisdom of development for the reigning theory seems quite able to describe and explain recent history in many places. Rather, this paper explores whether this particular teleological construct is quite the universal theory we imagine it to be when it is applied to conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. While the theory may have been appropriate for Western Europe, North America, and parts of the Pacific Rim, it is still an open question as to whether it is the pertinent theory for sub-Saharan Africa. The received wisdom of development may well have brought success to much of the currently developed world, but is it an appropriate construct for regions that have remained agrarian, poor, and "underdeveloped?"
To ask the question in a different way, is it possible that the developed economies, which dominate so much of the world's industry and trade, might block the path for others who seek a similar passage? If so, the received wisdom of development is a historically particularistic theory that cannot offer a coherent explanation of the current state of economic conditions in much of sub-Saharan Africa.
When the prevailing theory of development is transported from the countries in which it evolved to countries of sub-Saharan Africa, then the transferability of that theory ought to be given some thought. If the theory itself could become the focus for discussion, less time might be spent puzzling over the failure of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to follow the received wisdom. Instead, rather more time might be devoted to constructing a new theory of development.
What might this epistemological enquiry suggest about the development problem? In essence, it is inevitable that this enquiry would lead to a consideration of the very nature and structure of development theory. This would lead, then, to a careful assessment of the role of the core economic model, and of the auxiliary assumptions necessary to render that economic model empirically pertinent to sub-Saharan Africa. I turn to a brief exposition of this matter.
- See Timmer (1990).