Perspectives of underdevelopment in Africa

Africa’s relative lack of development has been cause for much debate over the historical factors that have led to their economic status. This essay will be contrasting two views on the matter: the dependency theory of Walter Rodney and the views of Jean-François Bayart and Stephen Ellis. The essay will accomplish this, firstly through outlining Rodney’s arguments and what he means by underdevelopment, and then by discussing Bayart and Ellis’s views. The essay will then contrast them. This essay will ultimately find that Rodney views Africa’s underdevelopment as Europe’s fault and that Bayart and Ellis view it as a result of a number of factors, highlighting the voluntary participation of many Africans as a factor.

Rodney (1973) argues that Africa underdeveloped due to European exploitation and a global system of Capitalism that requires its relative poverty. Underdevelopment, according to Rodney, is not a degree of development but rather a relative measurement.[1] While undeveloped refers to a lack of development, underdevelopment describes an inequality of development. Rodney argues that developed countries not only became developed through exploiting other countries, but that this exploitation led to those countries becoming underdeveloped.[2] He extrapolates that it is important to analyse Africa’s underdevelopment through its relationship with Europe.[3] He explains that Europeans setting the terms of trade resulted in an exploitative relationship which impoverished Africa.[4] This claim, however, is false and will be dealt with in contrasting Rodney to Bayart and Ellis. Rodney further argues that the financial dependence of Africa on Europe in the form of loans and investment creates dependency that prevents Africa from developing further.[5] Finally, he argues that Africa’s role in a global system of Capitalism causes it to remain underdeveloped as it remains dependent on the system.[6]

Bayart and Ellis (2000) respond to dependency theories by arguing that Africans participated in the system themselves. Dependency theories strips agency away from Africans, which inaccurately portrays their role in their local economy. Bayart and Ellis argue, with historical evidence, that many Africans voluntarily participated in global trade, even long before colonisation.[7] They also indicate the illogic of blaming slavery solely on Europeans, explaining that the slave trade would not have been possible without participation by African leaders and individuals.[8] Overall, Africans are not mindless drones primarily exploited by Europeans, but rather found themselves undeveloped due to a myriad of factors, including but not exclusively, colonialism.

Rodney approaches African economic history by stripping Africans of their responsibility and laying the blame on Europe. Bayart and Ellis approach the subject through maintaining the fact that Africans are humans with agency and responsibility. Rodney’s piece is filled with unsubstantiated claims (one being that Capitalism causes whites to become racist) and argues mostly from rhetoric and preconceived ideas with little substantiation. Another example of this is his insistence that unfair trade terms dictated by Europeans underdeveloped Africa. Bayart and Ellis provide a very good counter example in their explanation that the British-Nigerian palm oil trade, for much of its existence, was dictated by local producers.[9] This makes economic sense. Suppliers dictate prices, with buyers only influencing the price insofar as they are willing to pay. By definition, trade is voluntary. If Europeans coerced sellers, then it’s no longer trade. So either Europe did force local sellers, and therefore it wasn’t trade, or local sellers traded for a value they saw as reasonable, otherwise they wouldn’t have agreed to it. In the dichotomy between Rodney and Bayart and Ellis, the evidence and sound logic of the latter is clear. Rodney’s patronising view of Africa is unfounded, unsubstantiated and filled with ideological rhetoric rather than argument.

This essay has outlined the arguments of Rodney and his views on the underdevelopment of Africa. It has clarified that underdevelopment is a relative term, rather than undeveloped. The essay then discussed Bayart and Ellis’s views, finding them much more convincing than Rodney’s. This was due to Rodney’s lack of evidence and substantiation in his arguments. Bayart and Ellis, by contrast, provided much clearer evidence and a sounder approach to African economic history. Ultimately, writers like Rodney and other dependency theorists think they are helping the African cause when they strip responsibility away from them, but all they do is strip Africans of their humanity. For this very reason, Bayart and Ellis have a superior view, in that they recognise the participation of Africans in the global system, and not just ignore it as inconvenient to an Anti-European narrative.


  • Bayart, Jean-François and Stephen Ellis. “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion.” African Affairs 99, no. 395 (2000): 217-267.
  • Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Dar-Es-Salaam: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1973.


[1] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Dar-Es-Salaam: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1973), 2.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 6. This ignores the fact that African leaders choose to take on these loans. They’re not being forced. The only valid argument is that their need for capital necessitates the loans, but there are other avenues of gaining capital.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Jean-François Bayart and Stephen Ellis, “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion,” African Affairs 99, no. 395 (2000): 218.

[8] Ibid., 220.

[9] Ibid., 221.