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Neoliberal Africa: The Impact of Global Social Engineering

Neoliberal Africa: The Impact of Global Social Engineering

by Graham Harrison

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Africa is at the forefront of a globalised project of neoliberal reform. In Neoliberal Africa, Graham Harrison explores the ways in which African countries have experienced this project, which goes beyond economic liberalisation towards a bolder social transformation.

Harrison shows that - after thirty years of projects, aid disbursement, technical assistance and


Africa is at the forefront of a globalised project of neoliberal reform. In Neoliberal Africa, Graham Harrison explores the ways in which African countries have experienced this project, which goes beyond economic liberalisation towards a bolder social transformation.

Harrison shows that - after thirty years of projects, aid disbursement, technical assistance and conditionality - Africa's development crisis is not an exception to neoliberal globalisation, but at the heart of it.

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Neoliberal Africa

The Impact of Global Social Engineering

By Graham Harrison

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Graham Harrison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-321-1


Neoliberalism in Africa, neoliberalism and Africa

Africa at the forefront

[Africa] has been thrust into modern world history in incontrovertibly powerful and long-lasting ways. The slave and tropical commodity trades changed the world, industrial and non-industrial alike. The recalcitrance of European theory in the face of Africa is a construct of the same history, a co-production of Africa and Europe over centuries of economic and political engagement. (Guyer 2004: 14)

Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos. (Koolhaas et al. in Ferguson 2007: 75)

It is commonplace to find passing references to Africa (in this book meaning south of the Sahara) as a 'switched off' place in the global political economy. Indeed, some major and excellent volumes on global neoliberalism simply ignore Africa (Campbell and Pedersen 2001; Soederberg et al. 2005). It is for this reason that David Moore rightly states that 'studies of globalisation often ignore, or provide only passing coverage of, Africa' (2001: 909; see also Brown 2006). This ignorance is not just an expression of the alignment of international studies with the structuring of economic and state power and Western predominance (Hobson and Seabrook 2007; Engel and Rye Olsen 2005); it is also a product of the arguments and reflections of many scholars who are particularly interested in Africa (for an illustrative set of examples, see Sender 1999: 89–90; for the orthodox view, see Nissanke and Thorbecke 2008: 1). In the West more generally, Africa is represented in the media and mainstream culture as remote, exceptional and characterised as lacking to some degree or other the proper properties held by the 'international community' or 'globalisation' (Elbadawi and Sambanis 2000: 245; Werbner and Ranger 1996). In broad sweep, and not without a little licence for flair of expression, Achille Mbembe makes a striking summary:

Africa ... is portrayed as a vast dark cave where every benchmark and distinction come together in total confusion, and the rifts of tragic and unhappy human history stand revealed; a mixture of the half-created and the incomplete, strange signs, compulsive movements, in short a bottomless abyss where everything is noise, yawning gaps and primordial chaos. (2001: 3)

There is a lot to take in and unpack here, but it is difficult to disagree with the import of this overview: public and popular cultures in the West tend to represent Africa in terms of absences, delinquencies or alienness – each of which serves to reinforce a sense of Africa's marginality from any sense of global convergence and/or progress.

The robustness of this general trope is all the more striking for the fact that it has persisted throughout a period in which another discourse, that of globalisation, has worked to represent the world as increasingly interconnected and converging (Rupert 2000; Hay and Marsh 1999). Discursively, talk of globalisation can be understood as a recent and virulent incarnation of an expansive liberalism (Hovden and Keene 2001) which aims to encapsulate national, cultural and economic differences as ephemeral: either as differences that don't make a difference, as 'historically contingent' (Tsakalotos 2005: 894) or as 'rigidities and vestiges' (Bourdieu 1998) that temporarily encumber liberal realisations. Within this view, Homo economicus is seen as the originary state of the human being. In other words, socio-economic diversity does not undermine the notion – or faith (Weis 2004: 462 ; Geschiere and Nyamnjoh 2000 : 444 ; Marangos 2008: 238, and especially Comaroff and Comaroff 2000) – that there is a deeper global logic of convergence towards a particular form of sociability. That form of sociability is based in two lodestones: the free market and the rational individual (Williams 1999 ; Vlachou and Christou 1999: 2 ; Tsakalotos 2004 : ioff.). It is worth noting that neoliberal ideas frame rationality in a specific fashion – individualised, utilitarian and egoistic – which by no means exhausts ontologies of rationality (Manor 1991: 311).

It is this sociability – and the premiss that this is a foundational or essential human sociability – that allows globalisation discourse to imagine a converging humanity without articulating any significant aspects of coercion or severe disruption but rather as a positive-sum, consensual and stable process. The 'challenges', 'issues' and 'problems' with globalisation in this liberal view are second-order, concerning reform scheduling and design (Sachs 2005; Stiglitz 2007), the pace and nature of market-led modernisation (Easterly 2007; de Soto 2001), or the means to deal with 'externalities' such as environmental damage. In sum, a powerful discourse of globalisation has emerged in the last twenty years which projects a global process of integration and harmonisation – convergence – which is in all societies' interests.

These two discourses – of African exceptionalism and liberal integrative globalisation – produce a dissonance: an awkwardly conjoined sense of the universal and the particular in which Africa's place in any narrative of globalisation is significantly underspecified compared with other world regions. Nevertheless, some account of Africa must be made in order for those who advocate the liberal globalising canon to claim a universal worldview. This account creates a global cognitive landscape in which 'globalisation is passing Africa by', Africa is not fully globalised, and analogous phrases. This is often the metaphor evoked in IMF communications. Consider the following text specifically addressed to the 'Challenges of Globalisation for Africa': 'countries that fail to participate in this trend toward integration run the risk of being left behind' (Ouattara 1997). The effects of this discursive confluence are at best misleading and at worst pernicious. This book argues that if we move beyond liberal globalisation ideology, we can see that Africa is as much at the heart of globalisation as any other place.

Africa is at the forefront of a globalised project of neoliberal reform. We will come to reflect in detail on the definition and meaning of neoliberalism, but let us start with a representative and encompassing description: 'neoliberalism is a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximisation of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterised by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade.' (Harvey 2007: 22). If we understand a key facet of globalisation as the 'rolling out' of neoliberalism (Peck and Tickell 2002), then we should acknowledge that any proper study of neoliberalism as a globalising project should locate Africa at the heart of its research because it is a world region that has undergone such extensive and protracted neoliberal social engineering (Kozul-Wright and Rayment 2007: 177). Furthermore, the fortunes of neoliberalism in Africa are instructive for how we understand neoliberalism in other places and how we understand globalisation more broadly. To understand neoliberal globalisation, Africa provides vital insights and lessons (most of them cautionary) for the rest of the world. This is the point of departure for this book, and it is from here that we will consider the protracted neoliberal project in Africa as a form of global social engineering.


There is something rather rehearsed about discussing the definition of globalisation, so I will try to dispense with it quickly here in order to push the narrative forward. Globalisation simply speaks to the increasing interconnectedness between and beyond states that is driven by capital and its increasing concentration and mobility. There is a lot one might debate here, but globalisation debates have proven to be unending and this definition is not exceptionally controversial, so it can reasonably serve to shape the points made in this section.

If it is misleading to think of Africa as outside of/remote from globalisation then we must consider not only the ways in which Africa is globalised but also how Africa, in its relations with other places, produces globalisation (see also Moore 2001: 909). James Ferguson speaks of Africa's 'place in the world' (2006), arguing that many African states have been through a broadly similar experience of stalled national modernisation followed by externally led processes of neoliberal reform, or what he revealingly calls 'scientific capitalism' (1995). In other words, these authors rightly emphasise not any putative remoteness from globalisation but the problematic nature of Africa's terms of engagement with globalisation.

This book takes this point of departure to argue that Africa's 'connectivity' is not just important per se; that is, in terms of how Africa is affected by economic integration. Additionally, Africa's globalisation is part of globalisation in a more generic sense. We are interested not simply in Africa's globalisation but also in Africa/globalisation. This might initially appear to be a semantic nicety, but the distinction has important cognitive repercussions. It collapses the enduring dualism that persists between Africa and a external putative 'globalisation', and it compels us to recognise that – however we understand it – globalisation is as much composed of the political economy of change in Africa as it is any other region. To borrow from Jane Guyer's eloquent words which started this chapter, Africa and globalisation are co-produced.

A further repercussion of this conceptual and semantic shift is political. If we are concerned to challenge and critically evaluate the more apologistic narratives on globalisation, we should be ready to challenge the ideological effects of a globalisation–Africa dualism in which many of the most damaging, regressive and ugly aspects of globalisation are (dis)placed into Africa in order to represent them as manifestations of recidivism, anachronism and deviance. On the contrary: mass poverty, 'surplus' populations, state collapse, and other features of Africa's development crisis are at the heart of globalisation. To locate them as residual phenomena – 'more bad news from Africa' – is ideologically to dissemble a fuller understanding of global capitalism in the service of more bourgeois or romantic projections of globalisation.

Economic fragility

The Africa/globalisation frame of reference might usefully reject the neat dualisms of the mainstream contra divergent, or progressive contra delinquent, but it does leave us with an awkwardness in understanding Africa as a specific world-region which is in some sense specific; not just like anywhere else. We will return to this question of Africa's differentia specifica throughout the book. Here, our starting point is to recognise that certain facets of global capitalism, although generic, have been more emphatically embodied in African sovereignties.

If there is one key phrase to introduce these particular manifestations of generic aspects of global capitalism it is 'combined and uneven development'. The tendencies to integrate all spaces into global capitalism has produced within Africa modern forms of economic fragility and spatial differentiation, the disintegrative effects of which are mediated through the regulative processes of the state system, albeit one structured by massive inequalities of power.

With regard to the first theme – economic fragility – it is important to acknowledge that Africa contains a very high proportion of small and vulnerable economies. Many states rely on a limited number of primary exports whose prices have been generally falling and/or unstable (Gibbon and Ponte 2005). These exports are then processed, used in manufacture, and embedded into technologies outside Africa so that the 'downstream' value is realised elsewhere. Where African countries have manufactured and exported goods, recent changes in the global economy have rendered these exports similar to primary commodities (Kaplinski 2005): low unstable prices and intense competition for consumer markets have made low-technology manufacturing less of a 'take-off sector than it was perceived to be in the 1960s and 1970s when development economists saw this as a sine qua non for economic growth.

This is not to argue that African economies are populated by subsistence farmers who suffer a disconnection from modern markets and whose sole vulnerability comes from variable rainfall. Rather, and in broad brushstrokes, African agrarian livelihoods are defined by a range of unstable and largely unrewarding engagements with broader market relations. Households in the main rely on some combination of trade, agriculture and wage labour – formal or informal, more or less secure – in order to reproduce themselves (Bernstein 2004). These multiplex livelihoods (Bryceson et al. 2000) create 'modern' and integrated forms of poverty, an outcome not solely of low technology in agriculture but also of low wages, and low and unstable prices for goods sold (whether crops or artisanal goods) (Cramer et al. 2008). They also produce dynamic forms of social differentiation (Ponte 2001) and break down reified distinctions between the urban and the rural. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the internally complex tapestries of rural livelihoods in Africa encompass economies which produce little income, a slender tax base, and unstable and meagre processes of accumulation (Ellis 2000).

Although it is a fair generalisation to say that African economies are small and fragile, this is not to say that globalisation has not happened in Africa; rather, it is to say that the interactions between African economies and international/transnational economic flows are highly unequal. In a nutshell, Africa's influence over the broad patterns of international political economy is slight, but shifts and changes in the latter make a great deal of difference to the former.

The politics of international debt provide a rough and ready diagnostic of Africa's economic vulnerability. A slightly dated but illustrative example of this is the debt crisis that emerged in the early 1980s. In 1982/3, the failure of Brazil and Mexico to maintain payments on debt to the World Bank and the IMF triggered a series of responses by the Bretton Woods institutions, the American government, and other institutions to reschedule, open new lines of credit, and try to secure currency stability in the large but highly indebted economies of Latin America. During the same period, similar degrees of debt peonage in small African economies barely registered on the world stage: instead, the World Bank and the IMF were given pretty much an autonomous remit to implement economic conditionalities on distressed economies whilst debt was managed (not often reduced) by the World Bank, the IMF and the Paris Club of bilateral donors. For the US Treasury, the international economic think-tanks, banks, investors and financial journalists, economic meltdown in African states mattered little.

A related example can be found in a more recent comparison with Southeast Asia, which accrued large amounts of debt during the 1990s. Nevertheless, whereas most African countries had a debt-to-export ratio of about 200 per cent, the proportions in Southeast Asia were significantly lower: 34 per cent in Malaysia and 78 per cent in Thailand (African Development Bank 2006: 13).

These two regional comparisons reveal how international debt serves as a diagnostic of the political economy of Africa's economic fragility. In the first case, we saw how extremely debt-distressed African economies merited only the most meagre 'rescue packages', executed through the World Bank and the IMF and attached to punitive conditionalities (see Chapters 2 and 4) because these economies were of only marginal importance to the 'core' regions of global capitalism. In the second example, we saw how large amounts of international debt are not straightforwardly a problem and that the accrual of debt during sustained economic growth can in fact be beneficial. Indebtedness in Africa reveals the smallness of African national economies and their generally disappointing rates of economic growth (with some exceptions in the first decade of this century) – both core features of Africa's economic fragility. The particular vulnerability of Africa has only worsened since the 1990s: by the turn of the century, Africa had 5 per cent of developing countries' income and two-thirds of its debt (Prempeh 2006: 141).


Excerpted from Neoliberal Africa by Graham Harrison. Copyright © 2010 Graham Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Graham Harrison teaches Politics at the University of Sheffield.

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