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The Emergent Continent

The Emergent Continent: Part 1 of 4

The Interlocking Problems of Modernization, Development, and Charity

This is a guest post by Carol Gallo, who blogs at the UN Dispatch, and is the first of a four-part series.


Note: Although I recognize the fallacy of making general statements about “Africa” (and, for that matter, the “West”), I use the term to refer to all the continent’s countries in the way they evoke relatively homogenous images in the minds of many Westerners.

The contemporary manifestation of Africa as the Dark Continent—a place whose people are all victims (except for the corrupt politicians of course), especially its women, and whose people are all poor, deprived, unclothed, traumatized, uneducated, “tribal,” and generally apolitical—can be traced back to the Enlightenment and the advent of modernization theory.

This theoretical framework was first used to explain the changes taking place in Europe in the 18th century, but it was soon seen by European intellectuals as a universal phenomenon rather than a contextual one.[1] In the age of European empires it was adapted as a concept with which to explain (and justify the exploitation of) the societies found in African colonies and elsewhere.[2]

Thus the theory became one in which all societies were placed on an identical ladder of “progress” based on the trajectory of Europe— an inevitable, evolutionary path that would eventually, everywhere, lead to industrialized societies that resembled those in Europe and North America.[3] This model is the basis for the concept of “development” as a universal process that all societies go through, with some more “advanced” than others at any given time. In its early colonial manifestations, it included the (explicit) idea of racial superiority of Europeans as more “advanced” people biologically, an aspect of modernization theory now known as “scientific racism.”

The latter version went out of fashion after World War II and the use of Nazi anthropology to justify the Holocaust, but the notions of cultural and economic superiority or “advancement” remained.

The modernization/development framework still permeates much of the way we in the West think about Africa, particularly in popular culture and mainstream news. As Curtis A. Keim notes in Mistaking Africa, “Once you begin to look for them, you see inaccurate portrayals of Africa that reproduce the blatant old images in subtler, more modernized versions.”[4]

The perception of Africa as naturally deprived—because of its place, always low, on whatever version of the modernization ladder happens to be in vogue at a given time—has shaped the policies of Western countries toward the continent for centuries. This makes it easier to understand why some scholars and intellectuals, in Africa and elsewhere, interpret development aid as a contemporary form of imperialism.

The perception of Africa in the Western collective imagination as being less developed or less advanced in some way has resulted in many things over the past few hundred years, and still has some contemporary holdovers, but I would like to draw attention to two broad phenomena:

Denying Innovation: During the colonial era, most colonial states denied that Africans were “advanced” enough to be technologically innovative or creatively inclined, despite evidence to the contrary. More often than not, the colonial state denied access by the colonized to credit, entrepreneurial opportunities, and other resources necessary to pursue innovation and entrepreneurship. Upon decolonization, most African states were left to pick up the pieces after kicking out the colonizers, usually in the face of multiple harmful colonial legacies—particularly the lack of indigenous human capital. Freedom to experiment, to be creative, to try and fail and succeed and invent, and to be entrepreneurial: all of these things are touted by economists as necessary for economic growth and “development.”

The Charity Mentality: Westerners have in large part internalized the basic theoretical framework of “modernization” in one form or another, and so have become accustomed to infantilizing and pitying those that are considered less developed within it. The paternalism of colonialism, also concerned with projects such as building schools for and properly clothing Africans and fostering human development, easily translated into a perception of a poor, poverty-stricken continent that needs the help of benevolent strangers.

The historical denial of innovation in Africa facilitates this charity mentality including, at times, an assumption that it is Western innovation that will be the salvation of Africa.

The next part of this series will examine the ways in which this narrative of Africa, the West, and development aid is changing.


[1] Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), p. 27.

[2] Alexander Laban Hinton, “The Dark Side of Modernity: Toward an Anthropology of Genocide,” in Alexander Laban Hinton, ed., Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p 14.

[3] Thomas R. Shannon, An Introduction to the World-System Perspective (2nd ed) (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), pp. 3 – 5.

[4] Curtis A. Keim, Mistaking Africa (Boulder: Westview Press, 2009) p. 5.

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3 Comments

  1. […] 3. Africa – The Emergent Continent: The Interlocking Problems of Modernization, Development, and… […]

  2. […] narrative of Africa described in part one of this series is changing in many ways, especially on two major interconnected planes with regard to the denial […]

  3. […] Gallo, who blogs at the UN Dispatch, and is the third of a four-part series.  (Here are parts one and […]


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