The Papal Theory of Underdevelopment

The Papal Theory of Underdevelopment

Tuesday, February 7, 2023 9:50 am


Pope Francis and Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi sit on the stage for a meeting at the Palais de la Nation on the first day of Pope Francis’ apostolic journey, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo on January 31, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Pope Francis’ diagnosis of the causes of African underdevelopment is simplistic, condescending, and ahistorical

By Ebenezer Obadare

Pope Francis, whose two-country “pilgrimage of peace” to Africa concluded over the weekend, has been holding forth on the causes of underdevelopment in Africa. Addressing Congolese politicians and other dignitaries gathered at the presidential palace in Kinshasa, the country’s capital, the supreme Pontiff decried “terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity” in the Congo and “political exploitation” that has now given way to “an economic colonialism that was equally enslaving.”

For Pope Francis, the tragic fate of the Congo is a mere microcosm of the continent’s, whose states “continue to endure various forms of exploitation.” If the problem is so straightforward, the solution could not be simpler: those whose “poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood” must get their “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

It becomes quite clear that things are not so simple because only a few moments later, Pope Francis would contradict himself when he criticizes “the rich countries,” presumably the same countries he had just admonished to get their “Hands off Africa,” for “closing their eyes and ears to the tragedies unfolding in Congo and elsewhere in Africa.” Said the Pope: “One has the impression that the international community has practically resigned itself to the violence devouring it [Congo]. We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths.”

Professor Ebenezer Obadare

To put it mildly, Pope Francis wants to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he wants the rich countries to get their grubby hands off Africa. At the same time, he wants them to intervene post-haste to end the protracted conflict in the eastern region of the country. Something has to give.

It is telling that Pope Francis gave his speech in the presidential palace before the cream of the political class who must have found his blithe exculpation of their complicity in the protracted underdevelopment of their country especially gratifying. Had the Pope bothered to listen to a cross section of ordinary Congolese who thronged the streets to welcome him, he might have come to a different set of conclusions about the origins and character of the Congolese crisis. But Francis came with a prepared statement infused by certain preconceived notions about African underdevelopment and nothing, not even its blatant incoherence, was going to deter him from unburdening himself.

To be sure: the Pope is not wrong about the colonial impact in the Congo, or the country’s continued plight, both of which have been copiously documented. The problem—and here one is compelled to distill a subject of immense complexity—is that colonialism was never one singular phenomenon on the continent, was hardly uniform in its impact, faced considerable and often successful resistance, and, in the longue durée of African history, remains a mere episode. However, according to Pope Francis (and here we must admit that he is not alone), not only was colonialism a major interruption in the affairs of African societies, its continued effect is also such that Africans are of necessity hobbled in the handling of their own affairs. Worse still, those who once exploited African nations are at it still, only this time under the guise of “economic colonialism.”

The problem with this perspective is not just that it represents a gross distortion of history, it’s also that its insistence that Africans remain helpless captives to that history—basically a reduction of Africans to the status of permanent children—unwittingly plays to some of the worst racist tropes regarding African capacity. After all, what does it say about Africans that, having now been in charge of their own affairs for so long, and, significantly, having never relinquished it in many cases, they remain, from Pope Francis’ perspective, vulnerable to “exploitation” by so-called manipulative outsiders?

This invidious infantilization of Africans is seen most clearly in the reference to “economic colonialism,” especially with its underlying inference that the current economic order is somehow irreversibly rigged against African flourishing, an inference that simultaneously overlooks exceptional economic governance by some African countries and elides the important role of African agency (positively, but mostly negatively) in the management of African (economic) affairs. We hear echoes of this unfortunate formulation in contemporary denunciation of China for “saddling” its African partners with debt, the implication being not only that African countries in direct engagement with China have no idea what they are doing, but, even more bizarrely, that Chinese negotiators should put the interests of their African counterparts before theirs.

Not only does this amount to giving a moral pass to African leaders who have nary a conception of public good, and demonstrate accordingly with their unaccountable conduct, it is a gratuitous slap in the face of ordinary Africans and civil society activists who risk all on a daily basis in their heroic defiance of morally bankrupt leaders who have no hesitation in mobilizing violence against their own citizens.

Even if one allows that Africans continue to be “exploited” several odd decades after independence, the logical question is “why?” Why, to take just one example, would any African country sign a non-disclosure agreement whose terms are unfavorable to it, as is reportedly the case with many of the agreements reached with the Chinese government? What Pope Francis sees as “exploitation,” ordinary Africans have always understood as emanating from the fact that the African governments in this equation do not represent the will of their citizens. As a matter of fact, some are little more than familial franchises masquerading as the state. The Congo, where Pope Francis delivered his paternal peroration, is a prime example. From the perspective of ordinary Africans, there is no shock in such “franchises” signing agreements and treaties that put the family interest before that of the state, and what some outsiders see as “exploitation” is often nothing but graft and nepotism in praxis.

Perhaps Pope Francis means well; yet, one can mean well and be wrong. As a matter of fact, most of those who continue to champion the canard of African “exploitation” mean well. The problem is that, in continuing to diminish African agency, they end up on the same side of the street as racists who insist that Africans do not have the capacity to oversee their own affairs.

If Pope Francis really wants to know who ordinary Congolese hold responsible for their country’s protracted economic crisis, he should step out of the presidential palace and take a tour of one of the capital’s many poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

If he cannot do that, the Pope should stick to what he is good at.

*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy:

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