Gary Walker and Frank Ballance, “Africa’s Development Crisis: Looking Beyond the Famine”, Overseas Development Council, Policy Focus, July 1984

The Main Point

The principal argument of this article is that although occurrences of famine are noteworthy enough in their own right, they are only one symptom of the massive development crisis that afflicts most of Sub-Saharan Africa. In order to begin to address the crisis, it is necessary to review the factors that have and continue to have an effect on African development.


The article begins by describing the hunger crisis that was being experienced at the time of its writing (i.e. ~1984), detailing specific conditions in West, East and Central, and Southern Africa. It proceeds to address the key factors in the long-run development crisis (i.e. colonial heritage, population and urbanization, the environment, political strife and warfare, and oil prices and recession). It follows with a discussion of the debate over which is more to blame, ‘internal’ or ‘external’ causes. The article is rounded off with a brief discussion of the role of foreign assistance in Africa at the time.

Hunger Crisis

The hunger crisis in question had been triggered by what at the time was the most widespread and destructive drought in memory. This drought was unique for three reasons: (1) large-scale food shortages for the first time affected countries in all sub-regions in the same year, (2) ordinary patterns of trade within Africa had been seriously disrupted, and (3) the combination of the decline of production in export crops and the lowest real prices for African exports in thirty years seriously hindered countries’ ability to purchase food imports.

Long-Run Development Crisis

Under colonial management, the emphasis was placed on maintaining order and facilitating export crop production (e.g. development of infrastructure principally for extraction of resources). Agricultural production for local consumption was largely neglected or in some cases undermined. Although independence shifted political power to Africans, the majority of economic power remained in the hands of foreign corporations. In order to maximize the benefits for Africans, the governments pushed to assume control over economic decision making and management. This had varied results largely due to the absence of a local entrepreneurial class with the necessary capital, skills, and influence (i.e. ubiquity of corruption and incompetence).

Africa’s rapid population expansion has put great pressure on the agricultural land, has sped up the process of desertification (i.e. increasing the magnitude of droughts), has added to the demand for social services, and has led to overpopulation in urban areas. The significant numbers of refugees in almost every nation further hampers development.

Although only less than half of Africa’s arable land is under cultivation, the environment is under great strain. The fragile ecology of the Sahel has been damaged by the substantial population growth and overgrazing (i.e. leading to the expansion of the Sahara).

Chronic civil war and general lawlessness has drained the resources and energy of African governments and aid agencies. It has also displaced large numbers of people who are then unable to raise crops, tend herds, or gain from development assistance.

Global recession and increases in oil prices have greatly hurt African nations. The recession in the industrialized nations significantly reduced the demand for African exports and thus diminished export revenue.

Internal versus External Causes

Most Western governments and aid agencies tend to emphasize domestic causes related to the policies and management choices of African governments, while most African nations and U.N. organizations attribute the developmental problems to external causes. The internal cause argument suggests that by holding down crop prices in order to provide inexpensive food for the urban populations, the government has created a disincentive to raise crops. In addition, the practice of permitting or encouraging overvalued currencies has exacerbated Africa’s problems by making exports less competitive in the global market while making imports cheaper (i.e. encouraging food imports). Advocates of the internal cause argument also criticize government control of agricultural marketing and supply of inputs (e.g. seeds and fertilizer), as delivery of inputs and payments are often considerably tardy.

The two camps also degree over the relative role of industrialization. While African nations perceive industrialization as a priority, donor agencies and nations generally argue that industrialization will follow after local markets have expanded through the development of agriculture (i.e. generation of local demand for industrial goods). The donors favor more local production of food to reduce the dependence on foreign sources. African nations favor industrialization as commodity markets create worsening terms of trade for the producers. The donors point out that African attempts to industrialize have been costly (i.e. import-substitution drawbacks) and inefficient.

Foreign Assistance

Due to its limited markets and infrastructure (among other limitations), Africa has been unable to benefit from substantial inflows of private capital. This dearth of private investment establishes the conditions of Africa’s dependence on official development assistance. Many agree that without substantial increases in foreign assistance, African governments will be unable to undertake serious internal policy reforms.


Summary by David A. Ritchie