In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of African Development

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • “Development” and Why Some Countries Attain(ed) It
  • Classic Aspirational Writings: The Quest for Modernization
  • Colonialism, Postcolonial Moments, and Developmental State Institutions
  • Politics of Personal Rule, Corruption, and State Failure
  • Popular Struggles for Democracy and Strengthening of Governance Institutions
  • Political Economy Frameworks and Neoliberal Prescriptions for Development
  • Politics of Development Assistance in a Globalized World
  • New and Old Identities Politics of Social Development

Political Science Politics of African Development
Eric E. Otenyo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0240


The subject matter of politics of African development is complex, and the literature cannot fit neatly into a particular facet of political science. Literature on this subject is conceptually much broader than that of political economy, which would presumably be the dominant locus for organizing discourses on the subject. Development, by itself, conjures economic performance of activities, but the political determinants of these activities are what concerns those who study politics of development. Perhaps, a synthesis in the literature on politics of African development is possible, and encouraged, if students move away from the narrow confines of the social science and include appropriate humanities discourse. Still, that would be a formidable task to accomplish in these pages. Perhaps, a starting point would be to consider the intersection between politics and development in Africa. This means paying attention to seminal works that operationalize the important concepts and, for a moment, go beyond the African continent for insightful works. Of course, social scientists have wrestled with definitions of development and debated political aspects of the search for development in all developing countries. Much thinking has been inspired from seminal work done in advanced Western countries, which colonized most of Africa. In many instances, the perceptions of African politics and the perceived inability to organize for development grew out of anthropological frameworks, which regarded African political systems as “primitive” and weak at management of state functions. Drawing from various disciplines, scholars placed Africa’s development within the context of modernization arguing that many of its bureaucratic structures and systems were ill prepared to catapult the continent into a developed region. Seminal scholars, such as David Apter, Rene Dumont, and Göran Hydén, addressed both political and administrative aspects of the postcolonial African experiences. They explored development through privileging administrative institutions and critiqued forms of modernization theory as applied to Africa. Apter 1965 (cited under Classic Aspirational Writings: The Quest for Modernization) noted the process of modernization involved increasing complexity in human affairs, characterized by increased applications of technology and bureaucracies with technical expertise and implementation of a development ideology. By highlighting, the functions of a modernizing centralized and secular authority, Apter was among the first to link politics to development. Furthermore, although politics is generally understood in David Easton’s The Political System (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960) terms as the “authoritative allocation of values,” the context of power is embedded in the process of attaining development. Power can shed light on African nation building, state collapse, corruption, and the search for development through multilateral initiatives such as the “millennium development goals” and development assistance of all forms. Agencies that support development assistance including the World Bank and the United Nations, among others, through focusing on poverty reduction are major sponsors of scholarship on politics of African development. Poverty, for this purpose, is in this context both an independent and dependent variable. Data on development comes from international development assistance resources such as the World Bank, which publishes the World Development Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the World Bank), is the premier repository of information on Africa’s developmental performance. Likewise, the US Agency for International Aid, United Nations, Africa Development Bank, and Africa Union have vast documents on Africa’s politics of development.

General Overviews

Many of these texts emphasize that politics is at the heart of most developmental programs. Politics, when construed from a power dynamic, establishes the rules of who gets development benefits and why. Most introductory texts are excellent accounts for the general reader. The selected volumes are excellent pedagogically, and each offers unique perspectives. Freund 2016 offers a historical account of the place of leadership in managing development. Young 2003 and Harbeson and Rothchild 2017 are immediately useful to the contemporary general reader and have well-paced topics that shed light on Africa’s unique development experiences, Hydén 2013, Thomson 2010, Nugent 2012, and Gordon and Gordon 2013 are recent additions to the list of the best textbooks on politics of African development. These books cover the dominant themes on issues pertinent to the role of politics in Africa’s search for development across the nations.

  • Freund, Bill. The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800. 3d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-349-92885-9

    General account of Africa’s development history that focuses on its culture, society, and economic well-being through different spans. After discussing the material basis of colonial society and the enabling structures of power, Freund analyzes class relationships that affect Africa’s development processes. The volume considers colonialism, politics of independence and liberation, rise of dictatorships, structural adjustments, and politics of development.

  • Gordon, April A., and Donald L. Gordon, eds. Understanding Contemporary Africa. London: Lynne Rienner, 2013.

    An excellent collection of a broad range of essays covering such topics as the historical context of development in Africa and an introduction to African political systems and the way in which these affect economic developments. Among the topics covered are the economies of Africa, urbanization, population, women and development, and religions in Africa’s development. Available as an e-book.

  • Harbeson, John W., and Donald Rothchild, eds. Africa in World Politics: Constructing Political and Economic Order. 6th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017.

    Arguably one of the best collections of essays on Africa’s political order, this text includes the context of Africa’s early and modern civilization and its place in the world political economy. Essays also reflect on a wide range of issues including terrorism, state weakness, civil society, and democratization experiences as a component of political development. The volume also includes the impact of China and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) on development. Available as an e-book.

  • Hydén, Göran. African Politics in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    An excellent review of literature on the politics of African development since independence. Hydén’s work is an effort to bring mainstream theories of comparative politics to the study of Africa. The author discusses a wide range of topics including gender, weak states, personal rule, and ethnicity. His main argument is that, in Africa, politics is privileged, often at the expense of economic development. Available as an e-book.

  • Nugent, Paul. Africa since Independence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-39356-1

    A chronological account of the political and social history of Africa. This book highlights the conditions brought about by externalization of Africa politics through initiatives such as the structural adjustment programs and the minimization of the role of the state through expansion (or “takeover”) of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in development. The expanded edition includes work on the politics of health and development, including AIDs.

  • Thomson, Alex. An Introduction to African Politics. 3d ed. London: Routledge, 2010.

    First published in 2000, this is a good introductory text on African politics. The book helps readers trace internal political forces that affect Africa’s development. Among the topics covered are issues of neocolonialism, structural adjustments and democratic expansion, and the politics of relegitimizing the African state. It answers such questions as why African states have difficulties in managing their economies. Available as an e-book.

  • Young, Tom, ed. Readings in African Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

    An outline of thematic issues that inform the context of African politics. Covers a wide range of topics including authoritarianism and one-person rule, corruption, religion in development and politics, and conflict management. This is an even-handed book on African politics. It includes a discussion on corruption and ethnic politics.

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