10 September 2007

Africa: Resistance to Modernization in Africa

book review

Washington, DC — The effectiveness of aid and development policies in Africa is almost always measured by scholars and policymakers. Similarly, support of or resistance to such policies is usually expressed by activists or experts.

This book, in contrast, attempts to view development and modernization from the point of view of those most affected by its policies, and so it is both a detailed analysis of aid and development programs in Africa and a study of how rural peasants have resisted their implementation.

It details policies implemented by donors as well as by African governments, seeking to explain how rural people without a political voice express their protest at the policies which damage their interests.

The author, Giordano Sivini, makes clear his belief that overall, whether implemented by donors or African governments, aid and development policies in Africa have done more bad than good. He specifically targets IMF structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and Western government-sponsored aid programs, such as those initiated by USAID. Sivini believes that these projects fail as early as the planning stages, where he says they are badly conceived and not based on reality.

Sivini presents his research by using case studies from his work in Angola, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, and Tanzania.

Of Africa's rural majority, Sivini says: “The local people seem willing to take part in those initiatives that do not interfere with their habits, and to accept failures with indifference or resignation. In colonial times they were equally excluded from decision making, but their participation was compulsory. Now – as then – the people most interested in these activities are the officials and notables who jockey for small advantages and prestige.”

Sivini relates how the Manantali Dam in Mali, built to bring electricity and irrigation to villages along the Senegal River, uprooted around 12,000 people, destroyed 120 square kilometers of forest – and electricity production proved not to be viable. Moreover, there was a major outbreak of disease associated with contaminated water.

African Governments & Resistance

Sivini writes also of peasant resistance to modernization schemes, expressed passively through through migration, deliberately low productivity and the expansion of the “informal market”, or occasionally actively through organized resistance.

Sivini’s assessment is that the failure of aid and development policies is largely a result of the fact that colonial structures of rural exploitation, forcing rural peasants to produce for the market, did not change with independence.

And African socialism and Marxist/Leninist policies were misunderstood, he says, by leaders who tried to implement modernization policies based on perceptions of communalism in African societies. When they attempted to translate African communalism into communal production for the market, and by extension for the people, it did not work because communalism in Africa was never about producing for markets. The motive for cash production may have changed after independence but the structure of exploitation had not.

In Mali, the regime of that country's first President, Modibo Keita, was aligned with an urban elite. Their plans met with resistance by rural dwellers, who started an informal work slowdown by not participating in government projects and producing far less than was required.

Sivini deals with two examples, in Tanzania and Ethiopia, of attempts by governments to uproot rural communities.

He writes of the colossal failure of the project by the otherwise popular Julius Nyerere to force people into villages. The project uprooted five million people in two years, fuelling peasant resistance as old houses were burnt down, farmers were forced to work on cooperatives, and regional mismanagement led to the deaths of thousands. Sivini details how Tanzania's rural peasants resisted Nyerere's attempts to impose policies of communalism and modernization, effectively ending the program.

In Ethiopia, he looks at resettlement programs implemented by Mengistu Haile Mariam and financed by the Italian government, focusing on the links between endemic famine, resettlement, and migration. He also examines the exploitation of peasants by state-owned farms in Ethiopia and Angola when both were run by Marxist- Leninist regimes.

Flashes of Hope

Sivini also highlights African leaders whose attempts to restructure economic institutions and relationships were sabotaged.

The progressive policies of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara threatened the status quo, says Sivini, leading to Sankara’s death.

In Senegal, he recounts the efforts of that country's first prime minister, Mamadou Dia, to empower the poor. In this case, Sivini says, Dia's efforts were undermined by religious, political, and Western interests, condemning Senegal to the ranks of countries in which rural peasants lack power and carry the burden of ill-planned development schemes.

Government versus Nomads

Sivini's studies of attempts to settle Africa's nomadic people in one place deals with the Mucubais of Angola and the Masai of Tanzania.

The Portuguese first tried to turn the cattle-owning Mucubais into a stationary group. Later the group helped in the fight for independence, and Sivini describes its relationship with the post-independence Angolan regime.

In Tanzania, Sivini shows how the colonial government's intrusion into Masai communities impacted gender relations in favor of men. He also details how the post-colonial government attempted to modernize the pastoral communities of Masailand with Operation Imparnati and later the Masai Project.


That migration for those in the developing world is often a result of economic realities is known. What Sivini does is join other scholars in making a direct correlation between development programs and migration.

He specifically looks at West Africa and how conditions in countries like Senegal generated the movement of migrants to urban areas, across national borders, and to Europe. He refers to the   “back-and-forth” migrations between Senegal and France and the remittances that flowed back into Senegal, a flow that was disrupted when France clamped down on its borders in the 1970s.

Sivini notes that the tightening of immigration laws across Europe led in Francophone Africa to a shift towards migration within Africa, as well as longer stays in the developed world.


In the final chapter Giordano Sivini ties his arguments together and analyses the economic implications of modernization policies. He looks at the rise of SAPs and market-ruled economies in Africa, dating back to the historical Lagos Plan of Action and the Berg Report of 1981. The policies he writes of gave rise to the neo-realism of the Cold War era and the neo-liberal economics of today.

He examines why peasants continued to be exploited after independence; why there is a disconnect between leaders and their rural base and a marriage between leaders and an urban social base. He explains the debt crisis, international markets, and SAPs. Finally, he explains that aid – used as leverage after World War II and during the Cold War – has always been political.

Sivini's book, while not comprehensive, details well the nature of the post-independence development schemes of the 1980s and 1990s. It would have been interesting to read Sivini's reaction to current aid and development policies, including those development under the auspices of AGOA and NEPAD.   Comparing NEPAD to the Lagos Plan of Action shows stark contrasts in the ways in which Africans perceived development in the 1980s and they way they perceive it now. The Lagos Plan of action was seen as revolutionary at the time, and is still brought up by scholars as a symbol of African resistance to Western development policies.

Sivini's book is filled with data and historical facts for the policymaker or economist. Others will have to bear with the detailed and in-depth material. Overall the book is a good resource for a policy analysis on development in Africa, providing as it does detailed case studies, historical information and an assessment of the implications of policies for rural progress.

Resistance to Modernization: Journey among Peasants and Nomads by Giordano Sivini

Translated by Joan Krakover Hall

ISBN: 978-0-7658-0361-0

Pages: 310

Publication Date: 2006

Book is available at Transaction Publishers


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