Shaantanu Shankar

Shaantanu Shankar is a doctoral scholar at the Center of African Studies, Mumbai University.

Post-Colonial Development Complex in Africa

Shaantanu Shankar

Cover for WebDevelopment, itself, is an extremely complex concept in social science, with various definitions subject to differing social, political, and economic perceptions. A nation-state’s perception of the concept is derived from its own unique experience in the same. Traditionally a concept of economics and social science, it manifests itself as a critical socio-economic issue in contemporary politics. In contemporary international relations, development is at the heart of social, economic, and political debate. This is reflected in the prevailing divisions between what is known as ‘the developed and the developing world’.

Up until the late 1970’s, the international system was working through the institutionalisation of imperial politics, where in a handful of nations administered a majority of the world through the utilisation of economic, political, and military power. This is commonly known as the colonial age, an era in which international relations were dominated by Western imperial forces, backed by the immense economic power of highly productive colonies.

The dominant colonial powers dictated the rules and regulations governing this system, and the politically weaker colonies were the recipients of unfair and exploitative practises. The colonial system of imperialism was carried out through consistent socio-political subordination, economic exploitation, and ideological suppression.

Through the direct military-political nexus established between ruling classes in the colonies and imperial rulers of the colonisers, a working class aristocracy aligned to the interests of the colonial powers was created. This working class became the managers for the corporate industry of the colonial system.

During this era, colonies became critical spheres of investment and the economic lifeline for the capital states. This economic system was built on the exploitation of labour and resources. Raw materials from the colonies were utilised in the industries of the capitals and the colonies itself would represent the markets for these industrial commodities. Domestic economic structures and traditional economic industries were not able to grow during this period, and this severely reduced economic capacity of the colonies, a situation which persists in the post-colonial era as well. This created the basis of the ‘dependency’ syndrome which will be discussed subsequently.

The immense profit generated through this system of exploitation was utilized in maintaining the manipulative social hierarchy which was critical to the workings of the system. These divisions were social, political, and economic in nature, and served to ideologically suppress people, limiting the possibilities of socio-political mobilisations across different regions of a colony. ‘Divide and Rule’ became the popular term in academics to describe this phenomenon within the British Empire.

1 - WebThese factors contributed significantly to the inducement of a development complex. Large sections of people were bonded through agreements and contracts propagating these unfair and exploitative practices. Due to which human development of large sections of colonial society has not only stalled, but even depreciated to various degrees.

In the post-Colonial era, across Asia and Africa, this has manifested itself in what is commonly understood as a ‘colonial hangover’, with a strong impact on societies across the developing world. Imperial practises have not only affected capacities and capabilities of nations, but have also had a similar impact on society, as well as individuals. This has resulted in highly competitive and negatively aspirational societies with extremely corrupt and even authoritarian governing structures at one level, and an uneducated and dependent civil society across the colonial world.

In this new era, it has been observed that the development of a nation continues to be subject to systemic factors of international relations. This forms the crux of the argument proposed by the ‘dependency theory’, which perceives international relations through Marxist parameters, suggesting a continued dependency of the developing world on the axis of the imperial powers and their contemporary allies. This is evident in the strong emphasis on the importance of market-driven industrialisation in the development debate, supported by research published by the UN, OECD, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and leading universities in North America and Western Europe.

These institutions are a reflection of the development experiences of what is commonly referred to as ‘the West’ or the ‘developed world’, an experience based on the working of a an exploitative system. For a majority of the developing world, this represents a model which actively promotes post-colonial dependency under the pretext of globalisation and the working of a ‘global’ economic system. This post-colonial dependency is evident in the functioning of the World Bank, the IMF and the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) that accompany the critical financial credit lines extended to developing nations. This is imposed with the objective of promoting free market and liberal economic ideology to facilitate integration into the Western dominated international architecture.

The core element of this ‘dependency’ is the existence of the inherent lack of capacity at individual, communal, state, and national levels, a reflection of the same phenomenon in different fields. This affects not only economic productivity and output of nations, but the very ability for an individual to successfully empower one’s self towards achieving his or her upliftment. This ‘dependency’ syndrome has been most entrenched in Africa, its nations, and its systems.

African nations with a long-drawn history of colonial governance, compounded by limited traditional national-level governance architectures and a concrete pan-African agency, were forced to subscribe to the Western-led policies designed by the earlier mentioned institutions. Even today, French industrial giants continue to control Francophone Africa’s mining and extraction industries, and the US Multinational Oil Companies are dominant in the exploration and production of crude oil across the continent.

2 - WebThese factors have resulted in an extremely tumultuous post-Colonial development phase across the continent; a period marked by endless conflict, extreme corruption and immense poverty, limiting the scope for development across African nations.In spite of positive growth rates and industrial expansion, a holistic sense of human development is yet to be achieved. According to the UN’s Human Development Report, the concept grew out of global discussions on the link between economic growth and development, a bottom to top approach which focuses on the upliftment of people through individual empowerment.

At the same time, the 21st century has represented a period of enthusiasm and optimism across Sub-Saharan Africa with a greater degree of political stability, higher economic growth rates, and growing national capacities. Transnational forces have a significant role in the development of African nations, as mentioned in the previous section. First, they provide financing in the form of both loans and grants. Second, they support governments and legislators efforts to design policies to achieve specific socio-economic targets. Third, they encourage the development and dissemination of more internationally accepted standards and codes in economic, financial, and business activities. Fourth, they develop human resources, providing training and education to achieve the enshrined objectives of their engagement.

The emergence of a number of strong institutions and agencies capable of partnering African nations in their development initiatives have the potential to break the above-mentioned cycle of dependency. The increasingly prominent role of new and emerging regional and global powers in the international system has been a defining element of Africa’s contemporary international relations; and a significant contemporary actor in this engagement has been India and Indian institutions.Shared colonial legacies increase the importance of India’s engagement, with more experience in adapting to the post-colonial international environment.

Based on principles of equality and mutual benefit, India-Africa relations have evolved into a truly unique partnership. Through the working of Indian public and private institutions, there has been considerable effort towards development cooperation and capacity building. Further, these efforts have been multi-dimensional focussing on boosting physical and industrial capacity along with a strong focus on human resource development. India assists African nations in the training of engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, scientists, researchers, bureaucrats, diplomats and administrators alike.

Locating India in the Development Complex

Indian engagement in Africa has a rich tradition and history, but only in the 21st century has India looked to strengthen and expand relations across all sectors, with a particular focus on building economic linkages quantitatively and qualitatively different from those of the past. The highlight of this engagement has been the focus on the capacity building and human resource development of African nations.

Further, the influence of the traditional imperial power axis has become subject to the socio-economic unfolding of a large section of what was traditionally the ‘developing’ world. This has greatly increased competition, with India, China, Brazil, Turkey and their institutions leading the way amongst the new and emerging global powers.

A focus on South-South cooperation as the ideology driving the strengthening and expanding of bilateral relations has been encouraged in academic and policy debates in both India and Africa, and it is extremely significant towards building a long-term vision for the future. In this context, the relations between African nations and emerging powers, including India, also represents a tool to articulate and demand the restructuring of archaic institutions so as to rewrite the rules and regulations of global governance, in an attempt to ensure a more promising and prosperous global environment.

New engagements bring with it new perceptions and new ideologues, and South-South Cooperation with its anti-imperial basis has guided contemporary relations. That being said, India faces its own unique challenges in establishing its own footprint in Africa. But, at the same time, the Indian presence has provided an immense contribution to the economic and social progress of post-Colonial Africa.


Shaantanu Shankar has written this article with inputs from Dr Aparajita Biswas, Director, Center of African Studies, Mumbai University.

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