Globalization and the Poorest of the Poor: Global Integration and the Development Process in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Schneider, Geoffrey E. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Globalization and the Poorest of the Poor: Global Integration and the Development Process in Sub-Saharan Africa


Schneider, Geoffrey E., Journal of Economic Issues


Most recent studies of globalization describe the experiences of developed countries, and studies focusing on developing countries usually ignore sub-Saharan Africa. Yet Africa's experiences with globalization are unique. While the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) encourage African countries to open their markets, Africa is in some ways excessively open. The ratio of extra-regional trade to GDP in Africa is twice that of Latin America and nearly four times that of Europe. Furthermore, globalization is not a new phenomenon in Africa--Africa began to be integrated into the global economic system in the sixteenth century, and this integration has proceeded, albeit unevenly, since that time. Nevertheless, Africa is also a marginal player in global trade in that it is responsible for less than 2 percent of world exports and imports and attracts a declining share of global foreign direct investment (FDI). This paper describes the historical evolution of the globalization process in sub-Saharan A frica and the institutional manifestations of the globalization process. In contrast with the more auto-centered, aggressively expansionist structures of developed and newly industrialized economies, African economies have been and still are predominantly externally centered and passive in the international sphere. (1) Understanding these issues is crucial if Africa is to design development policies to break the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

The term globalization is usually used to refer to the contemporary processes--especially flows of capital, commodities, and information--that are operating to form a unified global economy. Globalization is presumed to be accompanied by the decline of the nation-state and market homogenization as we proceed inexorably toward a vast, unregulated market system dominated by multinational corporations. (2) However, as historian Frederick Cooper (2001, 190) has observed,

What is missing in discussions of globalization today is the historical depth of interconnections and a focus on just what the structures and limits of the connecting mechanisms are. . . . The world has long been--and still is--a space where economic and political relations are very uneven; it is filled with lumps, places where power coalesces surrounded by those where it does not, where social relations become dense amidst others that are diffuse. Structures and networks penetrate certain places and do certain things with great intensity, but their effects tail off elsewhere.

The unevenness of the processes driving globalization, and the ebbs and flows of globalization itself, are readily apparent in the experiences of sub-Saharan Africa.

If we accept the definition of globalization above, then globalization first became a force in Africa with the Dutch East Indies Company and other European mercantilist endeavors from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. For example, through the slave trade, connections were developed between European empires and certain African kings who were vulnerable at home and who used their external connections to gain resources and to disadvantage competing regimes. However, in fostering wars and trade in slaves, other economic endeavors were displaced, and contacts between many regions within Africa and other regions both inside and outside of Africa were disrupted. Thus, in a dialectical fashion, while some regions were experiencing globalization, others were increasingly isolated. And the regions with the strongest global linkages were experiencing a destructive form of trade rather than developing skills, industries, and technologies that might form the basis for future economic successes.

It is also worth noting that during the mercantilist era other major players in the slave trade, including Haiti and much of the rest of the Caribbean, experienced some of the highest rates of economic growth in the world. Haiti at the time was primarily an externally centered economy where slave labor worked on plantations owned by Europeans to produce sugar for export to Europe. …

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