The Persisting Relevance of Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

Source: Los Angeles Review of Books

THAT WALTER RODNEY’S How Europe Underdeveloped Africa still reads cogently after almost 50 years has more to do with how little things have changed rather than with any prophetic quality of the text or its author. If anything, it shows how resilient (neo)colonialism has proved to be as well as how fundamentally untouched its economic edifice remains. The apparent paradox whereby the richest continent on earth (in natural resources) is also the poorest hasn’t lost any of its bitter irony. Africa is at the very center of global economic interests, with major powers still scrambling over its highly lucrative resources. Though stereotypically perceived as the quintessential recipient of humanitarian aid, Africa still is, for the most part, being deprivedof (its own) wealth rather than benefiting from charitable, outside help.

If one wants to trace the genesis of this historical theft, often associated with or mistaken for “civilization,” Rodney’s text is as indispensable as it is exhaustive. From the outset, the Guyanese historian, revolutionary, and academic disallows any moralistic understanding of colonialism, resolutely moving beyond accusation and guilt. While the dominant discourse around postcolonial reparations tends to be conducted in strict ethical terms, Rodney’s work compellingly links racial inequality with social injustice. It is the economics of colonialism he is after, not its morals or clear lack thereof. Even when tackling the ancillary apparatuses of colonial rule such as culture and education, the relation between white supremacy and the exploitation of resources is always brought to the fore. So much so that Rodney concludes that “African development is possible only on the basis of a radical break with the international capitalist system.” The ultimate responsibility for the emancipatory struggle falls on the shoulders of Africans, he thought, implicitly warning that the benevolence or philanthropic charity of (post)colonial powers will never be a solution. As A. M. Babu notes in the postscript of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: “[F]oreign investment is the cause, and not a solution, to our economic backwardness.”

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