Pablo Martin Carbajal
An African myth pictures relations between blacks and whites as a dialogue between two masks. The mask of the white man has tiny ears and a huge mouth, while the black man’s mask has a small mouth and big ears. This is one of the ideas that Serge Latouche tries to convey in his fascinating essay L'Autre Afrique, entre don et marché (The Other Africa, between the gift and the market) in which he proposes a complete reframing of relations between Africa and the West.
It’s not easy to understand Latouche. To do so, Europeans should carry out a kind of metaphysical exercise that would isolate in some region of our brains a series of existential concepts with which we have organized ourselves from birth. For example, perhaps wealth does not mean material or capital accumulation, but the quality of social relations. This is at least the case in Africa (the word for ‘poverty’ in many African languages simply means ‘orphan’) and it is for this reason that westerners who visit Africa are so surprised. ‘How little they have and yet how happy they are’ we comment upon our return. We do not understand (and do not even think to pose the question) that their happiness does not come from, nor is produced by the possession or accumulation of material goods, but from their fundamental belonging to a group and from the quality of the group’s social relations.
Serge Latouche attacks the official Africa. He attacks the concept of State-building being imposed upon cultures in which the State, according to the author, does not work—the effort to create the State in Africa has not been successful. The whole book is an attack upon Westernization as a universal economic, political project—the western model of development is reproducible, but not universal. And from this perspective, he critiques all that is official: the African Sates, their ruling classes, the Western institutions that attempt to impose their model upon Africa, the economists that attempt to quantify everything —when in Africa so many things are unquantifiable in economic parameters— he criticizes Western-educated Africans, as well as NGOs and all of the people and institutions who would impose Western criteria upon a continent in which these do not function (thus leading to the dramatic consequences of African reality which Latouche has labeled ‘Afropessimism’ and with which he begins the book).
And within this expansion of Westernization, the concept of “the castaways of development” appears: those who, excluded from Westernization, nevertheless get on ahead, and not only do not disappear but multiply, forced to organise themselves according to another logic, and another way—the "informal economy". This is an economy which, in Africa, is based on social and familial relations, on friendships, on neighbours, on religion, with the obligation of giving and sharing, receiving and returning, between men and gods, living and dead, between fathers and sons, between young and old. And amongst all of these, the millenarian practices of negotiation, haggling, donation and barter. In order to show us how these informal economies work, Latouche carries out an interesting research project, analyzing three different communities: a blacksmiths’ village in the city of Kaedi (Mauritania ), the influence of witchcraft in Douala (Cameroon ) and the aeconomy of the Grand-Yoff neighbourhood in Dakar (Senegal).
Here I will attempt the difficult task of summarizing the case of Dakar in a single paragraph. Latouche analyzes the successful results of this informal economy, which he doesn’t define as an economy, but as a society. Each merchant has his groups, which could be hundreds of people, amongst children, relatives, people owing favours etc. The small merchants (hairdressers, drivers, mobile street vendors, bakers, untaxed petrol, clothes smuggled in from abroad, pirated tapes, recycled stolen goods, intercepted cargoes) know their client base and the personal history of each one (this being the true capital that social commerce works with), and in this way things can be sold and paid for when the client is able, things can be borrowed and returned when possible, all in a market with a specific group clientele and not a market subject to the law of supply and demand. In negotiation, social importance is taken into account; the price agreed upon includes the value of the goods and the favours returned. Additionally, prices are incredibly low, which guarantees that people with minimal resources can pay them, because Grand-Yoff’s development castaways in Dakar are not driven by profit calculations, but by what Latouche calls “the affective economy” in which encounters, visits, receptions, and discussions all take up considerable time; lending, owing, giving, receiving, helping, putting in requests and delivering take up an important part of the day, in addition to parties, dancing, weddings, baptisms, Ramadan... It is an economy (or aeconomy) that is not quantifiable from a Western point of view, but which, according to the author, actually works in the suburbs of Dakar . But Latouche reminds us that this aeconomy is not a first step on the road to development, that is, a type of economy that will evolve when the formal economy is installed. The kinds of actions carried out by NGOs and other institutions in their attempt to professionalize the sector and provide greater economic efficiency and rationality usually fail. It is simply an African way of working, which, from a Western perspective of course, is irrational.
Latouche ends by questioning if Africa should be helped. By this, he means “looked after” this being a typically Western trait with many ambiguities. The author claims that the aid that Africa currently receives simultaneously drowns it and helps it stay afloat, definitively prolonging its agony and corrupting the other, non-official Africa (perhaps it is too late? The rafts keep arriving along with many who probably belong to that aeconomy). Rather than humanitarian interference, continues Latouche, helping Africa would require that our societies of the North limit themselves, and would require a profound change in our models and a questioning of development. Helping Africa would also require asking it for help, help for example in resolving our material, social and cultural problems. If we consider Africa poor, it’s because we are rich, whereas the African continent is rich in what we are poor. That is why helping the other Africa (aside from being a hypercomplex question in itself) means establishing a dialogue in which the participants act with mouths and ears of the same size.
Original version: http://www.pablomar tincarbajal.com/blog.php
Translation: David Montoute