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Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s

Author(s):Grubbs, Larry
Reviewer(s):Levendis, John

Published by EH.NET (July 2011)

Larry Grubbs, Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s.? Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.? 256 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-55849-734-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Levendis, Department of Economics, Loyola University ? New Orleans.

Secular Missionaries, by Larry Grubbs, explores the origins and course of developmental political economy in Africa during the 1960s, its first decade of post-colonial independence.? Drawing a connection to the missionary zeal of the nineteenth-century civilizing mission, Grubbs asserts that development economists and practitioners based in the United States approached the task of ?developing Africa? with similar assumptions regarding the backwardness of Africans first articulated a century earlier during the early days of colonization.?

Cultural histories, such as this, reveal that the types of development questions that economists ask are culturally determined. The possible answers also depend upon, for example, Americans? views of Africa and Africans.? Are they children needing an adult?s nurturing? Unruly teenagers needing an adult?s discipline? Is Africa a tabula rasa or a briar patch?

By the early 1960s, the U.S. was fascinated with sub-Saharan Africa, which it viewed as a
blank slate unencrusted by the historical baggage of vested interests. Development was considered likely, but would it develop along politically democratic lines (the U.S. model) or along communist lines (the U.S.S.R. model)?

In the beginning of the 1960s American leaders believed that African leaders would selflessly promote growth. They seemed blind-sided by the selfishness and corruption that became apparent by the end of the 1960s. This mirrors developments years later in economics. The traditional neoclassical model of economics, the Paretian welfare model, assumes that the problems of incomplete markets can be solved by a government whose motives are unquestioned. It was a (cultural) given among economists: governments can maximize the social welfare function. That they might be maximizing their own welfare was not even considered until the establishment of the Public Choice School of economics.

The leading development theory of the time was ?Modernization Theory.? Based upon the general classifications of Walt Rostow?s ?Five Stages of Growth? theory, modernization theory was gleaned primarily from anecdotal historical evidence. Countries were believed to transition through stages. The task of development practitioners was to determine which countries had the right kinds of preconditions which would, with a nudge, allow their economy to ?take off? (an appropriate label for a theory born in the Space Age). Those countries which seemed to have the ability to absorb capital fruitfully were candidates for bilateral U.S. development aid. Aid-givers of the early 1960s had determined, wrongly, that Africa was peaceful, homogeneous, and had a strong political foundation which they had inherited from their colonizers, all of which would enable ?takeoff.? Cultural modernization would accompany and reinforce economic development.

The Rostvian development model allowed economists and policy makers to abstract away from country-specific idiosyncrasies, rendering development and U.S. foreign relations deceptively simple. In Rostow?s model, ?all nations are merely at different points on the same development path? (p. 58 Grubbs, quoting Haefle). Years later, development economists would continue to make the same mistakes when arguing for Solow-type ?absolute convergence.? Fortunately, this would be replaced decades (decades!) later by the more nuanced theory known as ?conditional convergence.?

The preconditions existed:? American capital and expertise were forthcoming. It was believed that markets in Africa were not developed enough to be able to coordinate all the various mechanisms necessary for growth. The obvious solution was centralized national-scale economic planning ? obvious in blackboard Paretian economics: ?Thus, even African leaders committed to a free market orientation acknowledged the need for significant government involvement in the national economy. Taking their cue from Soviet, Chinese, and Indian progress through Five-Year Plans, African rulers regardless of ideological orientation supported the drafting and promulgating … of national development plans that established targets and some criteria for allocating resources (including foreign assistance) to propel the nation forward through the ?stages of economic growth?? (p. 76). It was believed that by treating the economy as an engineering problem, planning would remove ideology and even history from the development equation: it was thus the ?moral equivalent of anti-colonialism? (p. 74).

Perhaps it is no surprise that planning was promoted too enthusiastically. Americans had had (supposed) success with planning with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Moreover, ?planning fit in neatly with an authoritarian impulse among Africa?s new ruling elite? (p. 80). Planning enthusiast Arnold Rivkin even believed that ?a development plan ? even one conceived in a period of troubles and confusion ? is always an element of stabilization and order? (p. 96).

Although late in the book, Grubbs admits that there was no universally accepted blueprint for ?good? economic plans, he does not provide the economic argument for why this will always be the case. Rather, he focused on the practical, political problems. One of the practical drawbacks to plan-based aid funding was that once the U.S. endorsed a plan, it created the impression that the U.S. would fund the entire plan. The U.S. might also find it difficult to withdraw funding whenever the plan was not being followed verbatim. Thus, the U.S. wound up funding boondoggle projects and bandit politicians.

Wolfgang Stolper ? of the Stolper-Samuleson theorem in international economics ? was charged with writing Nigeria?s first national development plan, though he was grossly unfamiliar with Nigeria. ?When the British conquered it [Nigeria] around 1900,? said Stolper, ?it was completely degenerate, with bloodthirsty tyrants, cannibalism, human sacrifices on an enormous scale? (p. 103). Unfazed, he wrote in his diary, ?I am the best economist in West Africa? (p. 103). He believed Nigeria would develop more quickly than other African countries, as he considered it fairly homogenous: its residents had ?a common language, similar university education, similar concepts and practices of modern jurisprudence, a common system of administration … one could go on and on? (p. 111). Nigeria homogenous?!
All the development plans failed in short order. Development practitioners tended not to blame themselves or their plans, but blamed Africans. By the end of the decade, frustrated, Americans rediscovered their old caricature of Africans as ?irrational.? One may substitute ?lazy,? ?stubborn,? ?tribal,? ?backward,? ?incompetent,? ?corrupt,? or any number of pejoratives here.? The recipients of aid, on the other hand, were frustrated with the bureaucratic nature ? the red tape, inscrutable and obstructive ? of planning.

?Why and how corruption came to exist and flourish in Arica, how multinational corporations and Western governments are implicated, need not be asked, let alone answered? (p. 188). (Grubbs does not mention P. T. Bauer?s criticism that aid itself creates the incentives for corruption since aid distribution is a zero-sum game.)

When Stolper wrote Planning without Facts, he complained that developing ?optimal? plans was made difficult by the lack of good economic statistics. Another passage that illustrates the epistemological naivet? with which development planning occurred, as well as Grubbs? uncritical acceptance of planning in general: ?Rostow wished to know if MIT had anything on hand with which to quickly estimate the kind of five-year plan Nigeria could or should produce? (p. 105).

The response to the failures of Modernization Theory was ?Dependency Theory.? Grubbs seems to accept this now-discredited theory as the explanation for Africa?s stunted growth. He accepts, for example, the argument that Africa?s poverty can be blamed on its poor terms of trade. He also accepts the critique of the dependency theorists that the national plans did not work because they were created by aid agencies and foreign governments and therefore did not reflect adequately African interests. This is true, but it is only part of the criticism. It seems that this criticism should apply to all such development plans. That is, all plans have to originate in a central bureau, so they can only incompletely capture every citizen?s interests.? ?Like their colonial predecessors, American scholars, experts, commentators, and officials succumbed to the hubris that promised complete knowledge and freedom of action.? Despite Wolfgang Stolper?s admission to the contrary in Planning without Facts, before the Nigerian civil war the American consensus held that enough information, analysis, and calculations could be arrayed to study and solve many African barriers to development. … Epistemology, therefore, furnishes part of the explanation for the failure of the U.S.?African endeavor of the sixties? (p. 185). Amen.

What I find remarkable is that neither the U.S. development practitioners, nor the African leaders found the very idea of national economic planning to be a nonstarter. Nor does Grubbs, except in the final pages of his conclusion. There had always been dissenters ? voices in the wilderness such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and later, P. T. Bauer ? but then, and now in Secular Missionaries, those voices remained unheard or unheeded.

There is no mention made by Stolper or Grubbs of the Misesian or Hayekian critique that planning without market-prices is impossible, as the planner cannot know the relative costs and benefits ? the supplies and demands among competing uses ? of resources. Perhaps he can be excused for this oversight, as most of the economics profession at the time had been swayed by the Keynesian revolution to ignore the epistemological critiques. To criticize Stolper for not knowing better would be anachronistic. Grubbs does not have the same excuse: he should have explained to his readers ? political and cultural historians less familiar with economics ? the deeper critique.

A second critique is dynamic: long-term central planning cannot account for change.? What was once ?optimal? may not be optimal when the world changes ? something it seems to do on a continual basis. Moreover, long-term planning stifles entrepreneurship, and the creative dynamism of a market economy.

After many setbacks, ?American policymakers began to distance themselves from the burden they had assumed in Africa? (p. 124). By the end of the 1960s they shifted from targeted bilateral aid to a more withdrawn position, hiding behind multilateral aid agencies such as the World Bank and other regional institutions.

Grubbs is clear that the subject of his study is middlebrow liberal American opinion only. He explicitly excludes conservative opinion as ?racist? and outside the mainstream of actual development work. Unfortunately, these blinders make it inescapable that the book contradicts its own purpose. Opinions and policies are not hermetically separated from each other. The book purports to illustrate this, but ignores too much of the cultural and political environment of the U.S. in the 1960s to accomplish this fully.

It has become commonplace among economists to proclaim that culture matters in determining economic outcomes. The possibility is largely ignored that culture also determines which questions to ask in the first place. That is, economists seem largely unaware that culture matters in determining theory! A little over a decade earlier America had emerged victorious from the war with significant economic planning of industry. The Soviet Union and India seemed to thrive under their own plans. This was part of the culture that American policymakers were operating within.

Grubbs seems intimately acquainted with the political economy of U.S. aid policy of the 1960s, but only marginally familiar with the development economics of the 1960s (no mention of Harrod-Domar or Solow, and vague descriptions of Dependency Theory and Rostovian Growth), and completely unfamiliar with development economics since the end of the 1960s. The book is also short on the details of African history.

Whatever was the cause of African poverty, Grubbs claims that the Americans are not blameless: ?American experts and officials helped write African plan, funded African projects that produced mixed results and substantial debt, and … blamed African culture for the failings that ensued? (p. 189-90).

Why is Africa poor? Grubbs does not say. This book is not about economics. This is not to say, however, that development economists have little to learn from the book. In fact, the very fact that it is not a traditional text on development economics is the source of its usefulness to development economists: it provides a different perspective.? Secular Missionaries reminds the development economist to reflect more deeply upon the cultural foundations of his own assumptions. It reminds development economists that even the most mathematical theories are products of their time, and as such, are ?cultural artifacts.? It provides a reminder that we, too, probably have a na?ve, overly simplistic, view of Africa, its economy, and the mechanisms behind its lack of development.

John Levendis is an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University ? New Orleans. His research is primarily econometrics applied toward issues of economic growth and development.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Africa
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII