This is a guest post by Mora McLean, President Emerita of The Africa-America Institute.
Some twenty years ago, Amartya Sen, spurred a major shift in development theory by making the case that per capita gross domestic product should not be the sole measure for assessing and comparing well-being across the globe. Sen called attention to global mortality data showing that men in Bangladesh were more likely to live to age forty than black American men in Harlem, despite having much lower incomes. He argued that “[t]he need to widen the scope of conventional economics to include the economics of life and death is no less acute in the United States than it is in famine stricken sub-Saharan Africa.”
Sen’s assertion draws some of its power from the juxtaposed references to “black America” and “sub-Saharan Africa.” He shows how people of African descent, on the African continent and in the Americas, are proxies for evoking images of impoverishment and depravation. The resonance of this imagery is understandable given that, for instance, the majority of Nigeria’s population lives in absolute poverty, despite its oil wealth and enviably high growth statistics; and that one in three black males born in the United States in the 21st century is expected to go to prison.
But, development discourse rarely examines the enduring role of racism in shaping institutions, processes, and perspectives that contribute to intractable poverty in Africa and elsewhere. The obvious racialism of apartheid is acknowledged, but as income inequality increases under black majority rule, concerns that South Africa is “going the way of black Africa” gain currency. Moreover, although Sen successfully steered analysis toward multidimensional poverty by factoring in U.S. demographics, the well-being of poor black Americans is not scrutinized according to the UN Human Development Index.
This “determined colorblindness” obscures history and geopolitics, and facilitates false assumptions and simplistic conclusions. For instance, with few exceptions, mainstream journalists and development economists routinely reduce Africa’s problems to ethnicity and corruption. They gloss over the institutional legacy of European colonialism in Africa, and overlook the ongoing, large-scale looting of Africa’s natural resources by transcontinental economic elites, facilitated by modern global financial mechanisms.
Failing to examine the role of race also leaves unchallenged the pervasive, albeit unspoken, view that intractable poverty amongst Africans and African descendants is attributable to their culture and innate qualities. As Kwame Anthony Appiah observes in his Foreign Affairs essay “[i]n the twenty-first century, as in the twentieth…a belief in essential differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ persists widely…”.
It’s been decades since Amartya Sen proved that poor countries can outperform rich countries in improving healthcare and life expectancy; and one of the lessons of the current global economic crisis is that aid recipient and donor countries face common challenges. Building on the analytical contributions of Sen and others, careful analysis of the interplay between concepts of race and development is needed. Doing so could usefully eliminate the “us” versus “them” development paradigm, and would provide a more holistic view of how to tackle poverty and achieve widespread well-being in Africa, in the United States, and beyond.