Lecture: Franklin Obeng-Odoom on Property, institutions, and social stratification in Africa
While it is intrinsically important to explain and, ultimately, try to address social stratification in Africa, these aspirations have not yet been satisfactorily executed. Human capital explanations can be enticing, especially when they appear to explain the meteoric rise of the Asian Tigers in terms of their so-called cultures of hard work. Attempting to explain Africa’s unequal position in the world system this way is common, as is conceptualising the problem in terms of the absence of physical capital and the presence, or dominance, of natural resources. In turn, it is quite usual to posit the need to reduce the transaction costs of transnational corporations, which presumably work to resolve the challenges of development in Africa. In practice, however, neither African culture, poor human capital, inadequate physical capital, nor the natural resource curse explains Africa’s underdevelopment. None of these can sufficiently explain the startling economic inequalities in Africa between various social groups, nor those between Africa and the rest of the world. In this regard, the idea that certain cultures of land either hinder, or would enable ‘Africa’s catch up’, are also mistaken. Although the reverse case – that African cultures are pristine – is sometimes used to counter this central thesis, it is similarly unconvincing. The spectre of Manicheanism, that is, expressing the African condition according to a dichotomy of either cultural pessimism or cultural triumphalism, is limiting.
Franklin Obeng-Odoom is with Development Studies at the University of Helsinki, where he is Associate Professor of Sustainability Science. He is also a Member of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, where he leads the Social Sustainability of Urban Transformations in the Global South theme. Previously, he taught at various universities in Australia, including the University of Technology Sydney where he was Director of Higher Degree Research Programmes.
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