Markets in Africa in a New Era

By Guyer, Jane I.; Hansen, Karen Tranberg | Africa, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Markets in Africa in a New Era


Guyer, Jane I., Hansen, Karen Tranberg, Africa


The following articles are all authored by scholars who started out their research careers on African economies in the latter half of the 1990s. They had an unusual opportunity. The world they were studying posed new logistical challenges to researchers, while the realities they eventually came to know also challenged the theoretical co-ordinates with which they were familiar. Their work reflects these dilemmas; it represents a new engagement with the empirical situation and a corresponding new breadth of allusion to theory and to work from the past. As the world was reconfigured, so also were the intellectual resources. The articles were first presented at a workshop for recently graduated and current graduate students, held at Northwestern University in March 1999. All of us who attended continue to work on the intellectual and strategic issues these papers grapple with. We all deal with facets of market dynamics, in a way that is still questioning the approach, the nature of the phenomena and the optimal ways of studying them. Different topics offer different possibilities for exploration and elaboration. It is with the range of their differences in mind, as well as the commonalities among them and in the African situations they address, that we present them here as a group.

The main intellectual dilemma is that the global economic changes of the 1990s were not predicted--even as momentum gathered, and even by people who were actively involved in promoting them. To judge by reports in the media, it seems now well accepted that the empirical realities of this new phase of capitalism are still under-conceptualised and under-theorised. How much more so the economies that are no longer being driven forward by this engine of growth and no longer seem plausibly to be `catching up'. The cover story of the Economist of 13-19 May 2000, entitled `A Hopeless Continent'--without even a question mark at the end--points to Africa. And yet half a billion people do make some sort of living there, and markets are a critical component of their economic lives. Parastatals have been privatised; migrants are still moving in search of opportunities in agriculture and the mineral economy; urban areas are still expanding, stimulating regional markets in provisions; and goods from all over the world are funnelled into the consumer market. As industry, export agriculture and civil service employment have stalled there is no doubt that commerce has surged forward as a major source of income and livelihood. In a sense, markets may have become even more pervasively important in Africa than elsewhere, although obviously in a different configuration. Standard economic analyses have trailed behind these realities. The admission of `hopelessness' possibly applies more accurately to orthodox analyses than to the continent itself. A recent World Bank report acknowledges the mistaken conceptualisation and damaging implementation of its own policies in Africa over the decade of global transformation (Kahn, 2000: A13; for a detailed critique see Hibou, 2000).

One problem is that, from an external perspective, the spatial metaphor of peripherality or marginality to world trade (now no longer necessarily set firmly in a matrix of neo-Marxist theory) is more or less generally applied to Africa's place in the global economy. Looked at from within, however, markets have become the bedrock of livelihood. Analytical issues now centre on doing justice to this kind of market phenomenon, that is, to places where markets are pervasive but not classically capitalist, where the institutions of the formal financial and governmental sector offer few resources and impose even less coordination and discipline, and where there is a correspondingly high degree of local institutional inventiveness, using models from a variety of sources, including tradition and religion as well as experience of an earlier phase of formalised management. The sheer eclecticism of the people's own constructions suggests the fruitfulness of a return to ethnography as a method and to some of the classics as sources about the historical precursors of today's situation. …

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