Post-Colonial Economic Patterns and Aberrations in African Countries
During the colonial period, European countries practiced mercantilism. This encouraged in their colonies the production of mineral products and agricultural products which could be exported to the mother country as raw materials for industries there. It also extended the influence of the money economy into the economic life of the colonial peoples. As increasingly larger amounts of land were switched from growing food crops to growing “cash crops,” colonies became less and less self sufficient in food production and often turned from being surplus food producing areas to being food importing areas. This pattern benefited the business community in the mother country in two ways:
The colonies produced crops which could be used by businesses in the mother country: cotton, sugar cane, indigo, coffee, cacao, tea, hemp, sisal, etc.
The colonies imported food products from businesses in the mother country.
When Europeans (primarily French and English) colonized Africa, they were had entered or were entering into the Industrial Revolution. The Europeans who came to the colonies, particularly the tropical lowlands, did not plan to stay and build new homes and new lives. Africa, to them, was to be a temporary stop in life’s journey – a stop where they got wealthy and then moved back to England or France. They came with attitudes more suited to economic exploitation of Africa than to long-term development. Their concern was to benefit themselves and England and France, not to build the local infrastructure for sustained economic development for the Africans.
In the highlands of Kenya and in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today) and in South Africa, Europeans did establish permanent settlements. Here climatic conditions were cooler, more like Europe. They often operated mines or established large agricultural enterprises. The laborers lived in villages on or near the landowner’s estate. The Europeans established themselves as a resident, rather than transitory, ruling class.
The peasants who worked as laborers were somewhat like the serfs on feudal estates in medieval Europe. The laborers were dependent on the landowners for work in the mines or on the farms and plantations. As Europeans introduced the money economy to replace the traditional, largely barter, economy, these laborers were completely at the commercial and agricultural enterprises. Often uneducated because the European owners and managers saw no need for educated laborers, their opportunities were limited. When laborers worked somewhat as sharecroppers, they were usually in debt to the landowner for the purchase of necessities on credit. These debts bound them to the commercial enterprises. With the expansion of the money economy, farmers who had some land of their own or had access to tribal farmlands increasingly shifted production away from subsistence food crops to cash crops to sell to the Europeans.
In some parts of Africa, plantation agriculture occupies much of the better agricultural land. Being large-scale operations, these usually require large-scale investment to be commercially marketable. In some countries, the plantations are owned by large foreign-owned companies. Here, again, the land is used to produce cash crops for export at the expense of producing food crops for the home market. Efficiency and maximizing the economies of scale are crucial to the financial success of these ventures which are primarily economic enterprises.
The mercantilist economic thinking of European countries in the 16th through 19th centuries established an economic system in Africa designed to produce primary products (raw materials) for the European mother countries. Increasing amounts of land were used to produce cash crops for export and fewer and fewer acres were used for domestic agricultural needs.
In many countries, agriculture concentrated on producing one or two main cash crops, rather than a diversified variety of farm products. In a world where these products were available from many countries, these producers had little control over the prices for which their products were sold. Changes in the international market could have profound effects on the economies of these countries. If there were a worldwide boom year for coffee production, the market price for coffee beans would drop. A country that depended heavily on coffee exports for foreign exchange currency would find that it would receive less foreign exchange currency than it had expected. The country would not be able to buy as much from developed countries as it has hoped that year for lack of sufficient foreign exchange currency. It can be risky for a country to depend too much on the export of one or two products, but this was the pattern which was encouraged under colonialism and continued after independence in most of Latin America.
By the end of the second millennium, there were attempts to change this pattern in most African countries. Education had reached more people and farther down the social ladder. Africans were more willing to invest in the commercial and industrial development of their own countries, particularly those that seemed relatively stable politically. Secondary and tertiary industries were being established in some countries.
Since independence came late to African countries, primarily after World War II, these countries entered a world with many highly developed industrial economies and much stiffer competition than they would have encountered a hundred years earlier. African countries also labor under the handicap of having boundaries established by Europeans. These boundaries create internal and external conflicts. The combine tribes of very different cultures and traditions in one country where they find cooperation above the tribal level difficult. In other places, boundaries have divided tribes, such as the Somali who are found in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.
African countries achieved independence quickly and often with minimal preparation for self-government. For many countries, the journey as an independent country has not been an easy one – they have had to face a multitude of problems. Given the many tribes within some countries, more than 200 in Nigeria, and the regional differences within some countries, it is not surprising that democracy did not last long after independence in many of these countries. Functioning democracies have been the exception here rather than the rule. European colonialism permanently altered the cultural, economic, and political development of Africa. Today, these countries have to both reconstruct themselves and find a way to compete effectively in the modern economic system. They face these tasks with the added burden of one of the highest population growth rates in the world.
Economically, the patterns established by the European colonizers provided the foundation upon which modern economies had to be fashioned. The pattern of exporting primary products and importing secondary ones still persists in the 1990s.
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