West African Trade: A Study of Competition, Oligopoly and Monopoly in a Changing Economy

By P. T. Bauer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
UNDERLYING FORCES AND INFLUENCES

This chapter treats of certain underlying forces and influences in the West African economies of special relevance to this study. The selected aspects are the impact of the money economy and of its recent and rapid growth; the imperfect specialization of economic activity; the low level of certain productive resources, especially of capital; and the unemployment of unskilled general workers. These have been chosen because an understanding of the phenomena is fundamental to an appreciation of the trading situation in West Africa.


1. DIFFICULTIES OF ADJUSTMENT TO A MONEY ECONOMY

Although by Western standards the real income of the population of the West African colonies is still low, and very low in some territories, these economies are not stagnant. In fact, many of their problems arise from the very rapid and necessarily uneven development which has taken place, and especially from the impact and progress of a money and exchange economy. There has been trade between Europe and the west coast of Africa since the sixteenth century, but its character, composition and volume have changed fundamentally during the last few decades. Until about fifty years ago there were no exports of cocoa, groundnuts, hides and skins or timber, and the export of palm products was only a fraction of what it is today. The Ibo, who today play an important part in Nigerian trade, were in an almost savage state as recently as 1910. It would call for anthropologists and sociologists to analyse many facets of the progress and the effects of this rapid transition. But those which bear closely on the present study require discussion here.

The comparatively recent emergence of a money economy explains the presence of institutions and attitudes which are largely unsuited to its requirements. The family system is an example.1 In West Africa a reasonably prosperous man is frequently obliged to support even

____________________
1
The term 'family' includes many more distant relatives and kinsmen than in Europe. The brief discussion of the family system in the text is intended only as a rough outline of those of its features which bear on the structure of West African trade. The information is based on numerous discussions with Europeans and Africans, and on some personal observations of the system and of its results. This seems sufficient for the brief analysis of its effects on the structure of trade, but comprehensive discussion would, of course, require the methods and the training of an anthropologist, by whose standards and for whose purposes the discussion presented here is necessarily amateurish.

-7-

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