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Poverty is not a problem of nature, it’s a problem of power

“Development,” I’ve discovered, operates as a flagrantly racist discourse in some guises.  Scrambling to explain the reasons for Africa’s perpetual poverty and apparently incurable misery, laypersons in the West point to Africans’ “savagery” and alleged incapacity for civilisation.  This is not just a fringe opinion; even among putatively educated individuals such nonsense recurs with disturbing frequency.

In an attempt to defend Africa and Africans against the cancerous ignorance that this model propagates, a collection of more thoughtful academics and development theorists — Jared Diamond and Jeffrey Sachs among them — have proposed an alternative, more liberal-minded approach to understanding Africa’s difficulties.  Instead of blaming underdevelopment on the presumed genetic inferiority of black people, they insist instead that we cast our critical gaze to the environmental conditions that Africans inhabit.

This approach, which draws its basic logic from environmental determinism, attempts to explain persistent poverty in Africa as the consequence of material forces outside the realm of human agency that have made it difficult for Africa to develop, suggesting that Africa’s climate, geology, and natural resource portfolio has ultimately determined its economic trajectory.  Compared to the racist assumptions that infuse popular pontifications about African underdevelopment, environmental determinism seems like a breath of progressive fresh air.  But a closer look shows that it smuggles in a number of insidious claims that connive to direct attention away from the real issues at stake.

But before getting to the critique, let’s deal with the theory on its own terms.  Environmental determinism looks as far back into the geological past as the breakup of Gondwana — the ancient super-continent — to show that plate tectonics conspired to grant Africa a coastline with few natural harbors and a gradient too steep to allow easy river transportation, making regional integration difficult.  In addition, the relatively older age of Africa’s geological profile means that its top-soils have been weathered to the point of deep depletion, rendering most ecological zones unsuitable for good agriculture.

The notorious Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) also makes a strong appearance in the arguments of environmental determinists.  This unique weather pattern pits dry continental winds against wet oceanic winds to create an annual precipitation cycle that oscillates between two dramatically different seasons: rainy and dry.  The rainy season is characterised by concentrated downpours, and the dry by often extreme drought.  The result: flash floods, cutting erosion, and topsoil degeneration that further militates against sustained agricultural pursuits.

Furthermore, the ITCZ weather pattern produces an environment in which a number of tropical diseases flourish, among them malaria, sleeping sickness, river blindness, and schistosomiasis.  As the pathogens responsible for these devastating diseases gravitate toward verdant, well-watered areas, they render some of the otherwise most arable land hostile to human settlement.  The two-season weather cycle also militates against settled agriculture in certain regions, necessitating nomadism or regular migrancy to urban centres, rendering peasants vulnerable to the dictates of a violent labor market and creating ideal conditions for HIV transmission.

And so it goes — a litany of arguments that prove that Africa’s problems are not necessarily the fault of Africans, but the inevitable outcome of nature’s capricious designs.  But while its observations are not untrue, as a standalone theory of underdevelopment, environmental determinism has some serious limitations.

First, the obvious objections.  The correlation between environment and development is indeterminate; there are many regions in the world with hostile geological and climactic characteristics that have nonetheless managed to keep from descending into inveterate poverty.  Second, the theory focuses on what Africa lacks rather than what Africa has, that being, among other things, vast natural resource wealth in the form of unprecedented petroleum reserves and mineral deposits (which, incidentally, happen to be a product of Africa’s unique geology).  The question should not be what to do in the absence of resources, but how existing resources get used, how they are distributed, and who pockets the profits.

In these terms, it becomes clear that environmental determinism completely elides both history and politics.  It elides history by ignoring past European involvement with Africa through the slave trade, colonialism, and resource extraction.  It elides politics in that it ignores the present relations of power — African, American, Chinese and European — that continue to develop the continent’s resources in the interests of some while marginalising others, through debt-manipulation, structural adjustment, and neoliberal trade arrangements.

Because environmental determinism posits an ahistorical and apolitical analysis of the problem, it lends itself naturally to solutions that ignore how inequalities have been and continue to be generated out of the capitalist world system.  We’re led to believe, for example, that a massive infusion of aid and modern technology to improve agriculture and eliminate disease will help clear the hurdles posed by a hostile natural world and pave the way for development.

This is a very compelling suggestion, of course, as it allows concerned Americans and Europeans to support a solution to the problem of poverty that does not challenge the underpinnings of their class privilege.  With an interesting sleight of hand, Western development technocrats manage to shift the blame away from the pathologies of power that lie behind the phenomenon of underdevelopment and toward the natural and politically neutral phenomenon of geology instead.  They want us to imagine a world in which their two billion desperately poor neighbors can be raised up to decent middle-class living standards without any restructuring of the capitalist world system and its inherently uneven division of labor, production, consumption, and emission.

Western development technocrats content themselves with ahistorical and apolitical solutions to poverty and underdevelopment in Africa because to tackle the real issues at stake would run up against Western economic interests.  It would mean deleting debt, promoting fairer international trade, eliminating agricultural dumping, and requiring multinational corporations to pay living wages.  Instead, concerned Westerners want to feel good about helping while still maintaining the system that supports their lifestyles, refusing to face the fact that the wealth and privilege of their nations — and, ironically, the very presence of the surplus that they can dispense so liberally in aid — depend on a system of extraction and exploitation that necessarily generates inequality.  As the dependency theorists have so long insisted, the wealth of the West is intimately bound up with the poverty of Africa, and vice versa.  Neither our wealth nor their poverty is natural, as the development technocrats seem to suggest.  Poverty is not a problem of nature, it’s a problem of power.


  • Jason Hickel

    Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development, globalisation and labor, with an emphasis on Southern Africa. He lives in constant fear of being sniffed out for his counter-revolutionary penchant for bourgeois wine and jazz. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhickel.