In This Review

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
By Walter Rodney
Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972, 316 pp.
False Start in Africa
False Start in Africa
By Rene Dumont
Praeger, 1966, 320 pp.
Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice
Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice
By Catherine Boone
Cambridge University Press, 2003, 407 pp.

Editor’s Note: Our reviewers each selected a set of books essential to understanding the past century and another set essential for imagining the century ahead.


These seminal works provide a guide to Africa’s evolution during the twentieth century and its current predicaments. Each has detractors, but their influence on how Africans and outsiders have come to view the region is undeniable.

Rodney’s landmark work mounted a bold revisionist critique of the once prevailing view that the economic and political relationship between Europe and Africa was mostly benign. Slavery, for instance, was widely reviled as cruel and unjust, but Rodney was among the first to emphasize its devastating impact on African societies and economies before the formal colonization of the continent in the nineteenth century. Similarly, with colonialism, Rodney pushed back hard against arguments that the region had benefited from European administration, however exploitative. Rodney’s mechanistic Marxism has not aged well, and his overarching argument that Europe achieved economic development as a result of its exploitation of Africa has little support among economic historians. But his sharp claims that the slave trade and European colonization delayed African development and that their negative consequences continue to hamper the region are now widely accepted.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, famously admonished his countrymen to “seek ye first the political kingdom and all things shall be added unto you,” capturing well the immense optimism that greeted the transition of many African countries to independence from European colonialism beginning in the late 1950s. In the West, as well, observers believed that international expertise and finance would quickly bring about economic development and state building in Africa. Dumont, a French agronomist, rejected this hopeful view in his provocative book. His pessimism was grounded in three clear-eyed observations: first, that policies were not adequately addressing the biggest negative legacy of colonialism—the sorry state of education and human capital in the region; second, that the neglect of agriculture in favor of rapid industrialization was disastrous; and third, that the political elites who had taken over states were self-regarding and bent on wasting their countries’ meager resources on perks and prestige spending on vanity projects that had little benefit for overall development. These failures would each contribute directly to the economic collapse, debt crisis, and state retrenchment that hit the region in the 1980s and remain significant obstacles to economic growth.

Both books generalize about Africa and are inattentive to the significant differences across and within countries, a common flaw of much mid-twentieth-century scholarship on the region. One such generalization was that African states were artificial and mainly foreign sets of institutions imposed on African societies by colonial rulers. Boone’s study disagreed with this view, emphasizing the substantial variation in the cultural and historical roots of elites in the region. She showed that the nature of the linkages between provincial and national elites largely determined the legitimacy and effectiveness of the central state. Boone demonstrated convincingly that productive relations between these local and national elites resulted in more effective administration and policy. This theory explained the variation across the continent about where public services got delivered and where they did not; where the state was predatory and where, more rarely, it served the public effectively.

Several contradictory trends coexist across the continent and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The effects of climate change are already taking their toll on Africa, threatening to slow development and fuel instability. At the same time, cities are booming, and new urban middle classes are pushing to transform their countries.

Climate change is certainly a preoccupying reality in the Sahel region. The British economist Toulmin has been following a small peasant village in central Mali since the 1980s, with several long stays in the village; her perceptive and wonderfully evocative ethnography of the village suggests the growing likelihood of conflict, insecurity, and economic hardship as land pressures intensify because of population growth and the now frequently erratic and uncertain rainfall. On the one hand, the village seems remarkably stable despite seismic changes in recent decades, but her account is deeply foreboding. She worries that the worsening conditions are undermining the sense of community and solidarity in the village, leading to greater individualism and driving people to leave. She is skeptical of foreign aid and the focus of donors on large-scale irrigation schemes that never seem to deliver what they promise. She is also critical of the Malian administration, which she describes as authoritarian and unresponsive to the villagers’ needs. Her description of the villagers’ resilience and their adaptability to the tough conditions is often inspiring, but the prospects for more effective public action seem limited, and the future of the Sahel region seems dire, with large areas increasingly ceded to jihadis and warlords and economic stagnation leading to outmigration and the collapse of communities.

Nyabola’s breezy account of civil society and the social media world in urban Kenya describes a completely different African reality, in which an educated, young, and cosmopolitan middle class employs digital technologies to improve their lives and demand greater accountability from their governments. Africa’s political class consists mostly of old men who have been in the game for decades. Nyabola captures well the self-confidence and optimism but also the growing impatience of young urban Africans with the old guard. Protests against governments in recent years, in countries as varied as Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Sudan, suggest the development of a contentious urban Africa. They reflect the expanding urban middle classes, their connections to the outside world through greater education and the large African diaspora that sends home new ideas along with remittances, which are now probably greater in total value than foreign aid. If governments can harness the energies of these urban middle classes, they can be the vanguard of a political and cultural revolution. Where their activism is suppressed, as now in Sudan, for instance, political and economic stagnation seems more likely.