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4. Does the Theory Fit the Circumstances?
The enigma about development in Africa arises, in part, because of the fallacy of composition inherent in discussions of Africa as a single entity. This observation is certainly not new, but it is pertinent to the previous discussion of models and applicability theorems. There are in fact, five Africas of interest to the development community.

First is the region of North Africa with its Arab and Muslim influence. Second, West Africa is characterized by abundant rainfall and small-holder cultivation. Third, Sahelian Africa features extreme aridity and is largely inhabited by pastoralists. Fourth is the region of Central Africa with thick jungles and bounteous minerals. Finally, the countries of East and Southern Africa have the common features of wild animals, nature parks, and mixed agriculture. These distinctions are, of themselves, somewhat arbitrary but it is clear that the prospects for African development cannot be comprehended if this large and varied landmass is treated as some undifferentiated whole.

We must also look carefully at the received theory of development in locations other than Africa that seem, at first glance, to be more homogeneous. There is mounting evidence that the theory may not even fit those circumstances. For instance, Timmer writes:

The failure of agricultural productivity per worker to rise as fast as national productivity in these three countries [Italy, Japan, the USSR] might thus be seen as an early signal that the patterns in the less developed countries seeking to start down the path of modern economic growth might be significantly different from the historical path followed by the Western countries [Timmer, 1990, p. 55].

Citing research by Bairoch, Timmer notes that:

Only Italy in 1840 had a lower productivity level than that of Africa and Asia in modern times. The gap in agricultural productivity on average between European countries beginning their industrial revolutions and Africa and Asia is...about 45 percent [Timmer, 1990, pp. 55-56.

Then, quoting Bairoch [1975, pp. 40-41], Timmer further observes:

A gap of about 45 percent is sufficiently wide for us to be able to assert that agricultural conditions in the currently developed countries before the beginning of the industrial revolution must have been very different from those of the under-developed countries of Asia and Africa today [Timmer, 1990, p. 56].

The received theory of development might thus be quite inappropriate to problems of development outside of the areas of the world whose empirical conditions gave the theory its applicability theorems, its structure and thus its empirical propositions. To consider this possibility is to enquire into the nature of the applicability theorems that gave the conventional theory its empirical relevance. How does one begin to think about a theory's applicability theorems? We might start by differentiating the 48 African countries by those traits that seem pertinent to a more coherent theory of economic development. That is, we identify those countries that might be called agrarian in nature. For present purposes, a country that in 1991 had more than 20 percent of its GNP arising in agriculture and, at the same time, less than 20 percent of is GNP arising in industry would be considered "agrarian." Eighteen African nations fit this profile (see Table 1).


These eighteen nations are spread rather evenly among the regions of Sahelian Africa, Eastern/Southern Africa, and Central Africa. Three countries are drawn from West Africa. None of the North African countries is considered agrarian by this definition. In what ways do these eighteen agrarian African countries differ from the remaining thirty African countries that we might regard as mixed economies? Data for the agrarian and mixed African countries, along with selected agrarian countries from Asia and Latin America, can be compared (see Table 2)2. These latter countries are included here to give the reader unfamiliar with African conditions a somewhat better perspective on the agrarian and mixed African economies.


From the data in Table 2, it is apparent that agrarian African nations have very low GNP per capita and a high level of official development assistance per capita. Development assistance is also a high percentage of GNP. Debt service as a percent of exports is rather modest but, as a percent of total borrowing, debt service is very low. These agrarian states thus seem to be avoiding the trap of devoting much of their new credit to the service of existing debt.

The agrarian African nations are not big borrowers per capita and, compared with the other 48 nations in Table 2, they enjoy a rate of growth in GNP that is quite consistent with the others in Table 2. The index of growth in food production is about average, compared with other countries, as is the case for cropland area per capita. The agrarian nations of Africa differ in these respects: they have a high percentage of total labor force engaged in agriculture; irrigation is not prevalent compared to their cohort in Africa or elsewhere; and fertilizer use is very low. They are somewhat modest recipients of food aid.

Directly compared with their African neighbors, these eighteen agrarian nations are somewhat poorer in terms of GNP, they are three times more dependent on development assistance (as a percent of GNP), they are positively frugal in terms of debt service as a percent of borrowing (as well as in total borrowing per capita), and they use one-half the fertilizer on lands that are only one-half as likely to be irrigated. These conditions aside, the data suggest that these eighteen nations are not drastically different from many of their neighbors.

Does the received theory of development pertain to them? Does it even pertain to their African neighbors? Will these African agrarian nations, not to mention many of their continental neighbors, become highly urbanized and industrial? Do their leaders and citizens aspire to this sort of future? More important, if they aspire to a somewhat more agrarian future, are they thereby destined to be classified under the sobriquet "underdeveloped?"

This question is pertinent because, their relative poverty aside, these nations do not seem seriously deficient in other economic indicators. The mixed African economies (the other 30 African nations) receive more official development assistance per capita, their debt service is almost 120 percent of current borrowing (twice that of the agrarian nations), their current borrowing per capita is almost six times that found in the agrarian nations, and their index of food production lags behind that of the agrarian nations in Africa (see Table 2). Most telling, the mixed African economies irrigate twice the proportion of their cropland and use twice the fertilizer per unit of cropland as do the agrarian nations, but they still do not appear to have an enviable level of performance in the agricultural sector.

The point of these comparisons is to suggest that we are considering two quite different African economies here. One of the economies is agrarian, and it is certainly poor. But is it performing all that badly, given its technological and ecological conditions? The other economy is more industrial, with higher GNP, but it clearly has some lingering economic problems. The implication here is that the development prescription for the one group of countries must be quite different from that which is appropriate for the other. There is a different set of applicability theorems and hence a different development path appropriate to these two groups of countries. The received theory of development must be differentiated to account for the very different empirical realities of sub-Saharan Africa.

That the empirical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa call into question the relevance of the traditional theory of economic development still leaves open the more fundamental aspect of that theory--namely its teleology. To that I now turn.

  1. In these latter two regions the definition of agrarian does not depend on the fraction of GNP arising in agriculture and industry. Rather, these countries were chosen on the basis of the acknowledged importance of agriculture in their economy, regardless of the industrial share of GNP. The Asian countries are Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. The Latin American countries are Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
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