Book Review: Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa

Title under review:
Obeng-Odoom, F. (2020). Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-49199-0

Reviewer: Dave Manneh, Independent Researcher (Intersection of Science, Technology and Society)

Editor: Dr Ayonghe Akonwi Nebasifu (Forest Science Department, University of Helsinki)

Paradigm Shift: Unveiling New Perspectives on African Economic Realities

“Property, Institutions and Social Stratification in Africa” presents a seminal examination that challenges conventional economic analyses of Africa’s economic and social condition. The book sheds light on the intricate dynamics of property rights, institutions, and social hierarchies. It offers a comprehensive exploration of the multifaceted issues surrounding economic development, inequality, and resource allocation in Africa.

Obeng-Odoom cited the entrenched examples of class, race, gender, and space which are all impediments to equality. These, he argued, are an enduring consequence of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism (p.26 – p.30). His insightful critique of prevailing economic paradigms provides a fresh perspective on how historical legacies, institutional frameworks, and social stratification intersect to shape Africa’s economic landscape

Obeng-Odoom develops and presents the work in meticulous coherence, organising it into several interconnected sections, each addressing distinct facets of Africa’s socio-economic landscape. The first section highlights the need to challenge mainstream economic analyses and reconsider the conceptual frameworks which are commonplace in development economics. The book critiques the impact of neoliberal economic reforms, explores the complexities of wealth transmission and women’s experiences, and questions the limitations of current development economic paradigms. He provided a case study of Ghana’s landownership and its gender inequality which hinders women’s access and control over land. Conventional land reforms are unlikely to address the underlying structural inequalities. An intersectional approach that considers gender, race, and class is crucial for achieving equitable land ownership in Ghana and beyond(p.101-106). The emphasis on understanding and addressing inequality and social stratification on the continent is a consistent and recurring theme.

Unveiling Africa’s Economic Quandaries: A Thorough Analysis from Land Reform to Resource Curse Phenomenon

The book then systematically dissects critical aspects of Africa’s economic development, spanning topics from land reform policies to the influence of transnational corporations. Land reform frameworks imposed on Africa and the Global South remain incredibly challenging and continue to be a critical issue in many African nations. This has a particular personal resonance; I am currently dealing with the effect of The Gambia’s selectivedesignation of some ancestral lands as ‘state lands’. Obeng-Odoom gave this continent-wide vexing issue a deserved examination –focusing on the slow progress and bureaucratic challenges countries face in implementing workable land management frameworks. He argues that land reform policies often fall short of achieving their intended goals, inadvertently perpetuating structural inequalities. This analysis sets the stage for a broader discussion on the role of transnational corporations, their control over resources, and the complexities of economic development in Africa.

The book further implores policymakers to explore alternative economic strategies, including “Africanisms” (p. 236) and the concept of “beyond growth,”(p. 243) which challenges mainstream ideas of economic growth and promotes well-being and sustainability. Obeng-Odoom adeptly navigates through these issues, providing a rigorous analysis of the resource curse phenomenon and its implications. He scrutinises the often-overlooked colonial influences that continue to shape economic trajectories – and persuasively argues that the resource curse narrative sometimes serves as a smokescreen, diverting attention from more profound structural issues rooted in historical injustices. He convincingly argued the weakening of Africa’s economy is the result of “the nature of the  neoliberal economic reforms imposed on African countries in the 1980s systematically led to the weakening of African states, the destruction of their  social policies, and the creation of a generous tax climate for transnational corporations that led to a transfer of rent from producers to rentiers.” (p. 21).

Transnational Corporations (TNCs), Environmental Considerations, and Critiques of International Financial Institutions

The book also delves into the role of transnational corporations (TNCs) in Africa, shedding light on their pervasive influence in shaping economic policies, resource management, and urban development. Obeng-Odoom’s critique of TNCs challenges conventional narratives that portray them as benevolent actors in African economies, instead exposing the power imbalances and unequal distribution of benefits as undesirable byproducts. It proposes different approaches, such as nationalisation and countervailing power, to counteract this imbalance.

Obeng-Odoom convincingly addresses the environmental consequences of economic activities, particularly in the oil and gas industry. The discussion on pollution, toxic emissions, and land contamination underscores the need for a more sustainable approach to resource extraction, taking into account the well-being of local communities and protecting natural resources.

African Perspectives: Challenging International Financial Institutions and Reimagining Economic Development.

Obeng-Odoom’s arguments echo scepticism towards the usefulness of policy directions from international financial institutions. These institutions often impose ill-suited policies on Africa. Because of its economic weakness, the Global South feels compelled to accept these recommendations. Some of these policies play a significant role in the immiseration of Africans, revealing a dynamic where these policies contribute to shaping the economic landscape with undesirable consequences. The yoke of intergenerational debt shackles the global south, perpetuating a cycle of destitution and inequality that casts a shadow over future generations. Breaking free requires debt relief, fairer trade, and increased investment in sustainable development. This will empower developing nations to chart their own course towards a brighter future. By lifting this burden, we can foster inclusive and sustainable economic growth, ensuring a more equitable and prosperous future for generations to come.

It is essential for African academics, such as Obeng-Odoom, to interrogate economic policies and offer solutions to the challenges faced by the continent. Letting experts from the international financial institutions tell a story about Africa leads to misrepresentation and misinformation. Hence, this work is not only important but necessary in shaping a narrative rooted in African perspectives. Without a doubt, the contributions in this seminal work are invaluable to the discourse on African economic development. It successfully dismantles mainstream economic analyses, offering an alternative lens through which to view and then understand the continent’s challenges. By centering the narrative on historical legacies, institutional frameworks, and social stratification, Obeng-Odoom provides a more nuanced and contextually grounded perspective.

Obeng-Odoom’s emphasis on the need for inclusive governance and democratic decision-making processes is noteworthy. By advocating for the empowerment of individuals, protection of the environment, and comprehensive land reform policies, he offers tangible solutions to address the pervasive inequalities that have plagued African nations. He proposed “treating natural resources as common property that benefits of all citizens and to guarantee that labor receives its full reward. His proposal contrasts with the solutions often proffered by others, like protection, “retreating from globalization” etc(p. 175).

However, the book could benefit from a more extensive exploration of policy recommendations and their feasibility in different African contexts. While the theoretical frameworks Obeng-Odoom presented are robust, he would have enhanced the book’s applicability for policymakers and development practitioners if he had taken a deeper dive into practical implementation strategies.

Obeng-Odoom’s work stands as a significant contribution to the growing body of literature that seeks to redefine the discourse on African economic development. His engagement with critical theories, such as Marxism and Georgism (p 38-39), provides a solid theoretical foundation for understanding the complex interplay of property rights, institutions, and social stratification. Moreover, the book’s engagement with contemporary debates on environmental sustainability, resource management, and the role of transnational corporations aligns with current academic discussions on global economic justice and ecological responsibility.

Intellectual Vanguard: Rethinking African Political Economy Through Obeng-Odoom’s Paradigm-Shifting Analysis

“Property, Institutions and Social Stratification in Africa” is intellectually stimulating. It stands as a significant contribution to the field of African political economy. Obeng-Odoom’s fastidious examination of diverse themes and critical engagement with prevailing economic theories provides readers with a thought-provoking perspective. It is a thought-provoking work that challenges prevailing economic paradigms, established and orthodox narratives. This book’s examination of the African economic landscape offers a valuable contribution to the academic discourse on economic development, inequality, and resource allocation. It offers alternative frameworks and solutions to address Africa’s socio-economic challenges. Overall, the depth and breadth of analysis make this book an essential read for scholars, policymakers, and anyone seeking a nuanced understanding of Africa’s economic and social dynamics.