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How African thinkers of the 1980s fed into today’s inequality debates

A blackboard with the word povery written on it, a pair of spectacles, a book and apen
Inequality within countries is growing globally Wikimedia Commons

Inequality is an issue that arises everywhere in the world today.

Recent studies by economists such as Branko Milanovic and Thomas Piketty have looked at trends in economic inequality on a global scale. Social movements – such as Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter and Me Too – as well as the COVID pandemic, have emphasised inequalities along lines of institutionalised racism, gender, wealth and health. All these highlight the unequal global power relations that continuously shape the world.

But how have the world’s intellectuals historically thought about inequality? By examining the ideas of earlier thinkers, we can gain perspective which might help us understand why today’s world remains unequal.

This is why a research project, at Aarhus University in Denmark, is exploring the intellectual history of global inequality. As part of the research team, I have been studying how intellectuals in post-independence Ghana handled the idea of an unequal world.

For Ghanaian postcolonial intellectuals, terms such as development, neocolonialism, self-reliance and indigeneity were central to discussions of global inequalities. In a recent paper, I argue that at the end of the 20th century conceptions of global inequality were hinged on intellectual debates about African development. This was a time shaped by economic decline and crisis discourses.

Decline and divide

On the African continent, economic decline worsened after the oil shocks of the 1970s. The continued decline made the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa label the 1980s as ‘Africa’s lost decade’.

The modernisation projects of the early independence years had not brought about the economic ‘takeoff’ that many African independence leaders had intended. What the first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, had expressed as the “raging hurricane of African nationalism blowing through the oppressed and down-trodden colonies” was losing air.

Intellectuals in Africa and elsewhere began to ‘diagnose’ the main causes of the economic, political and social problems on the continent and look for solutions.

Their thinking about development divided opinion. Left-leaning and Marxist inspired scholarship focused on the sustained underdevelopment of poorer nations by foreign powers. On the other hand were neoliberal ideas, based on neoclassical economics, scepticism towards state intervention and confidence in the free market.

Accentuating this divide were two key official blueprints of the early 1980s. Through the Organisation of African Unity, African leaders issued the Lagos Plan of Action of the Economic Development of Africa 1980-2000 in 1980. This was arguably the first African ‘home-grown’ development plan for the continent. It stressed African collective self-reliance and resistance to free market economics. The following year, the World Bank published the strategy paper Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda for Action. It underlined the managerial incompetence of African governments. This laid the foundation for the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s-1990s.

Elites and indigeneity

In my article, I show what two Ghanaian-born intellectuals made of the continent’s problems and how to fix them during the 1980s-1990s. They are the South African based social scientist Kwesi K. Prah and the US based economist George N.B. Ayittey. They both left Ghana in the 1970s under the Acheampong military regime.

The solutions they offered were shaped by their different standpoints and intentions.

The two fell on different sides of the intellectual divide. Left-leaning Prah looked to language as a solution to development, ending neocolonial tendencies. Liberal Ayittey argued that postcolonial African elites had betrayed the African people through corruption and diasporic rule funded through foreign aid.

Prah’s thinking was shaped by language debates taking place in South Africa at the time. It was also shaped by theories of dependency between old colonial powers and their former colonies. He stressed how using indigenous languages had the potential to break the connections between African and foreign countries and their elites. In his view, the mother tongue was the foundation for personal and societal innovation.

Ayittey depicted precolonial Africa as democratic and capitalist. He emphasised that only through indigenous African institutions (such as chieftaincies) and free markets, free trade and entrepreneurship – which he argued were precolonial African values – could the grip of elites on the people be loosened. Provocatively, he called these elites black neocolonialists.

Thus, both Prah and Ayittey critiqued African postcolonial elites and upheld the importance of African indigeneity, but with very different purposes.

The divide among intellectuals – in this case Ghanaian – clearly shaped the debates of the 1980s-1990s. Both thinkers used concepts such as development, indigeneity and neocolonialism to portray different conceptions of the unequal condition of the world – and how to resolve this.

The 1980s also saw a ‘neoliberal turn’ as the World Bank and the IMF rolled out Structural Adjustment Programmes. A focus on ‘internal issues’, such as leadership mismanagement and the need to restructure ‘failed’ African states, shaped economic policies across the continent. This was in line with parts of Ayittey’s controversial criticism. And, in effect, it brought with it a reliance on foreign experts, funds and the free market – still, to some extent, effective today. A reliance on foreign models which both Prah and Ayittey criticised at the time from different angles.

A lingering problem

But the desired turnaround has not yet been fully reached. The most recent Human Development Index reveals many bottom-ranking countries are in Africa.

Although global income inequality between countries has been decreasing recently, within-country inequality is on the rise. According to leading inequality economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel today’s levels of inequality are similar to those of the early 20th century.

Studying intellectuals like Prah and Ayittey reminds us of ideas which might give us the historical perspective to act on related current issues.

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