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Towards a better development agenda for the global south

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015. They were adopted in September 2000 through the Millennium Declaration at the 55th session of the United Nations General Assembly, convened as the Millennium Assembly. The MDGs, understood to be a global development agenda, focused on poverty reduction, access to education, gender parity, healthcare access, sustainable development and international partnerships. Although many milestones have been reached, Africa is set to miss most of the MDGs, so are many countries in the global south (with possible exception of Brazil and China, which incidentally did not follow the orthodox prescriptions for development).

The global south, as Samir Amin has been arguing, needs a different approach to socio-economic development. Amin is pushing for socialism, while Ayi Kwei Armah and others view socialism and communism as inappropriate for Africa. I have been arguing for communalism, as described by Walter Rodney. George Ayittey has argued for a socio-economic development approach akin to communalism; a development approach that puts the peasantry at the centre. Communalism, as a philosophical framework for Africa’s development, would facilitate development as conceptualised by Claude Ake — Ake sees development as “the process by which people create and recreate themselves and their life circumstances to realise higher levels of civilisation in accordance with their own choices and values”. It might very well be that different variations of communalism can be adapted for local contexts by the countries of the south.

There are various reasons why the global south, on average, remains on the periphery. For Africa in general, as I have argued elsewhere, the disappointing levels of socio-economic development are largely a result of inappropriate policies/reforms. Policies are considered inappropriate or weak if they do not take account of particular contexts. The global environment, different domestic contexts and other contexts change overtime; as such policy changes or shifts (ie reforms) and their sequencing have not been alive to new realities in Africa. Thandika Mkandawire has, over many years, been explaining the importance of policies, and social policy in particular for Africa and the developing world.

In the main, however, the skewed distribution of global power and unfavourable state-capital relations limit development in the global south as many have argued. The global north is clinging onto global political and economic power and uses all sorts of tactics to ensure that power is not shared equitably, globally. Unfortunately, as William Robinson puts it, post-independence African leaders have surreptitiously formed alliances with global capital as part of the transnational capitalist class. Susan Strange talks of the internationalisation of production networks as an inevitable outcome of global capitalism in which corporations seek outlets for cheap labour, higher returns on investments, freer regime of trade, investment and capital, at the expense of development. With regard to state-capital relations, it would seem that the private sector has captured governments in the global south thereby privileging “profit over people” (as Noam Chomsky would put it).

There is a general tendency to blame the woes of the global south, perhaps simplistically, on corruption, weak leadership, geography etc (as I have argued elsewhere). This is not to say that weak leadership and such are not constraints — they are just not binding constraints for the development of the global south. Indeed, corruption, which has led to the pauperisation of the citizens, has been a significant negative factor. Also, dependence on aid and foreign assistance has also obfuscated development in the global south. In the context of Africa, however, the culpability of African leaders in surrendering the development process on the continent to the logic of global capital cannot be denied, as many have argued. As Ayittey puts it “the nationalist leaders, with few exceptions, adopted the wrong political systems, the wrong economic system, the wrong ideology and took the wrong path. Equally grievous, perhaps, was the low calibre of leadership … the leadership lacked basic understanding of the development process.”

Given the two fundamental challenges that constrain the further development of the global south ie policy constraints and the skewed distribution of global socio-economic and political power — what could the global south do? At minimum, countries of the south should get policies right and pursue implementation effectively in order that effective development occurs. The countries in the global south should learn from each other — there are countries of the south like China, Brazil and Venezuela that have made commendable socio-economic progress because of the policies pursued. The post-2015 development agenda has to ensure that correct policies are in place: economic policies need to be improved and social policies have to be robust as well as labour market policies should be ameliorated. Most importantly, social and economic policies have to work together for reducing poverty and inequality. Of critical importance though, in the longer term, from a policy perspective, is the restructuring of the affected economies to address structural poverty and inequality and effectively advance human development.

Fundamentally, however, global politico-economic relations should be reconfigured. The global and or geopolitical distribution of power must redress the peripheralisation of the global south and the current shift in global geography of power in favour of the south offers another rare opportunity. The global south needs its own development approach, adapted for local realities for the different countries of the south. The global south would do well if it listens to Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Adebayo Adedeji, Amin, Issa Shivji and many others who have argued that what is needed is the complete decolonisation and deimperialisation of the global order.

The peoples of the south must unite to defeat the interminable imperialism and coloniality that maintains the status quo that makes them worse off. The starting point is to get rid of the “leadership that lacks basic understanding of the development process” as Ayittey has described our leadership.

As I argued in my recent inaugural professorial lecture, thought leadership, critical consciousness and thought liberation are the three main ingredients needed to take the global south forward and get rid of incapable leadership, get policies right, get state-capital relations proper and deimperialise as well as decolonise the global order. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinweizu Ibekwe, Ama Mazama, Archibald Mafeje, Anibal Quijano, Patricia McFadden among others, have long given powerful pointers on how to pursue the “three main ingredients needed to take the global south forward”. We must indeed burn the colonial library and challenge its epistemological violence, as Valentin-Yves Mudimbe would put it.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.


  1. B. Miles Teg B. Miles Teg 30 December 2014

    … burn the colonial library?… I am shocked! Because… we will be forced to reinvent the wheel (concepts and categories) in an increasingly concentrated world of globalised/financialised capitalism, we will loose intellectual allies, and it makes mockery of the fact that we need not concede the monopoly of definition to the North… perhaps those countries that have developed in recent times present an example… this obsession with african uniqueness in the face of homogenising capitalism fails to deal with the fact that the cheap commodity is the battering ram… you are taking us back to the Madagascan struggles who refused for over a 100 years the commodity temptations of the French but then eventually succumbed… no, i think Thandeka is on a better path…

  2. Vusi Gumede Vusi Gumede 6 March 2015

    Which Thandeka are you referring to, and or what ‘better path’ is s/he on? As for the ‘colonial library’, it is a figurative expression: I am talking about privileging African scholarship, or ideas etc of those of African descent. I am also not taking ‘globalized/financialised capitalism’ as a given: its hegemony is being challenged, and I am optimistic that an alternative socio-economic model is in the making. I am also puzzled that you argue that there is “obsession with African uniqueness.” You must have misread my main arguments. When we chronicle issues about Africa or Africans, we are not romanticizing history or essentializing that which is African. In the main, we think there is a case to be made that Africans have been robbed, colonized, brutalized, slaved etc and that their history has been distorted. We are simply recounting Africa’s or Africans’ glorious past and see that as a point of departure towards claiming lost glory and reclaiming pride in that which is African. We are clearly not saying Africans are better than, say, Europeans or Asians. And there is no racism or naivety involved. We are also fully aware of the many blunders that some Africans have committed, and we are not exonerating them.

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