“So what is economic development? A society grows economically as its members jointly increase their ability to manage the environment. This ability to COPE WITH THE ENVIRONMENT depends on the extent to which they understand the laws of nature (science), the extent to which they put this understanding into practice by designing tools (technology), and the way in which they working. is organised”. –Walter Rodney
It is a fact that the economies and societies of the subcontinent are what they are today because past approaches have not worked, and no one seems to be thinking about how to radically change them. We are told that we must borrow abroad to solve the most fundamental problems rather than deploying our internal assets. They say we should build our financial markets to lend to our people because access to credit is the problem.
We have become dependent on foreign investment wherever it comes from, even though our own people are wasting our resources abroad. They say that once our banking sector is solid, everything else will fall into place. Some say inflation is our problem and once solved, the invisible hand will allocate our resources. For years, we have also been impressed that once our young people become entrepreneurs, hustling from street to street with foreign-made products, we will achieve socio-economic development. In 1986, Ibrahim Babangida sold out Nigeria to an ideology that defused the provision of public goods, led to the mass sacking of civil servants and the eventual privatization of companies created to provide for the welfare of Nigerian citizens.
Today, I am interested in unpacking a definition of economic development that is close to my heart and that keeps coming back to me whenever I think about it. It’s a definition that keeps regurgitating in my mind, and I often find myself chewing on it for its richness. I just think it’s a brilliant, prescient, timeless definition of economic development and we were blindsided by its beauty perhaps because of the author.
Walter Rodney is the Guyanese historian and academician, assassinated in Georgetown, Guyana, at just 38 years old. He was on the left, socialist. Perhaps because of this leftist predisposition, the work of people like Rodney has been totally obliterated or, at best, suppressed. Yet this definition of economic development, to me, deserves to be discovered, for its universality, its depth and its impartiality and above all for its focus on people. It’s really about how people should develop while everything else falls into place.
I believe most other definitions and approaches point in the opposite direction.
Rodney says that a society grows economically when its members jointly increase their ability to manage the environment by understanding the laws of nature (science). This part of the definition concentrates the task of economic development on knowledge. This speaks to the need for capacity building as part of the societal culture. And that emphasizes the need for DIY (do-it-yourself). Unfortunately, in Nigeria today and in most other black African countries, we still borrow money from abroad to educate our children. Many politicians even embezzle this money, casting curses on their own generations.
If a people jointly increased their capacity for science so they could create livable environments and conquer the elements, we would never have to borrow abroad for basic things. Because by borrowing, we put ourselves down and tell the world how stupid we are. What a people should do is document the events and navigate the elements of the environment, beyond the mythology. You can see that Rodney isn’t talking about economics here, but ENVIRONMENT, of which economics is just a subset. There is an economic environment yes, but before the economic environment, it is a physical, political and social environment.
A people should know when not to build their houses on the floodplains, why they should not stay in the open field or under a tree in the event of a storm, how they should watch out for bush fires in the dry season, what to do to keep wild animals away, what kind of soil to plant their food for maximum yield, and so on.
The second part of the quest for economic development, according to Rodney, is that “…this ability to COPE WITH THE ENVIRONMENT depends on…the extent to which they put this understanding (the science) into practice by designing tools (the technology)”. In this part, Rodney says that it is not enough to understand the laws of nature, but that a society must also organize itself to produce the tools that allow it to navigate the elements that it has noticed and understood.
Finally, Rodney spoke about the organization of work. This is how he concluded the definition. I wondered about this part for a long time. But over time, I realized how important it is for a company to keep in mind that critical areas are inhabited. Nigeria is a typical example. Fifteen million children out of school, and rather than worrying about having social services to get them back to school and making sure there are hundreds of thousands of teachers to teach them, no one don’t care and we are overseas looking for loans and polishing and polishing our finance sector for ‘financial inclusion’. We now have a big problem with border and internal security and rather than bite the bullet and employ the young people in the security services so that if need be the whole place should be crawling with security people we ignore and decide we have a problem dollar’. Otherwise, how will the dollar enter through tourism and investment when the country is not safe? It is therefore very important for leaders to know that the critical sectors that form the basis of economic development are adequately staffed – education, security, housing sector and food security.
This definition concerns the very basis of economic development. It’s about how a nation can grow organically. It is about knowing how a society can appropriate the trajectory of its own development. It’s about factor substitution – how a company should use what it has to cover for what it doesn’t. This approach is far superior to the one we apply in Nigeria and parts of Africa, where we focus on what is in the soil and our waters; mineral resources that we cannot mine ourselves.
Looking at this definition, one can rightly conclude that we have not yet begun our journey towards socio-economic development. We’re just dancing around the subject.