As alarming as the poisoning of Flint’s water supply is, a sure sign of America’s infrastructural decay and its environmental and racial segregation, one could be forgiven for asking what Flint’s decay has to do with the story of Sudanese economic policymaking. However, as the story of Sudanese economic policymaking unfolds throughout the rest of this article, I hope my reader will be able to see the significant parallels between Flint and Sudan in terms of the ways in which the logic of “urban renewal” in the case of Flint and of “economic development” in the case of Sudan created increasingly unequal societies. During the middle decades of the 20th century, the best efforts of state planners in societies as seemingly divergent as the United States and Sudan created inequality and economic vulnerabilities that by the 1980s would challenge some of these communities which were unfortunate enough to be unable to escape the pockets of localized misery created by state policy. In the United States, we witnessed the emergence of urban decay in cities such as Flint, but also in Gary, Indiana; Camden, New Jersey; New Orleans, Louisiana, etc and in Sudan, persistent wars broke out in parts of Darfur and the country’s southern provinces. The discourses of “urban renewal” and of “economic development” not only produced similar results, but in many ways they were concurrent results of the same economizing logic.
Flint’s precarity is not of recent vintage, though its suffering has only periodically broken into the headlines. It has taken large-scale tragedy to make the national media in the United States pay attention to the localized poverty in Flint. The 1989 movie by filmmaker Michael Moore, Roger and Me, captured the human tragedy caused by General Motors’ decision to divest from Flint after having monopolized the region’s financial, human and political capital. Wittingly, but without foresight, the region’s political and economic authorities created a vulnerable regional economy, reliant on a single industry. Therefore, they had very little room to maneuver when General Motors and the rest of the American car industry began to retrench in the face of an increasingly competitive and unstable world market for both capital and labor. The divestment from Flint accelerated between the second half of the 1960s until the 1980s.
In order to fully understand the connections, let me indulge for a moment longer in a discussion of how Flint’s past since the 1949 passage of the U.S. Housing Act dovetails with the history of Sudan. The U.S. Housing Act created the possibility of urban renewal, just as the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940 created a framework in which economic development and welfare programs could be carried out in Britain’s overseas dependent territories. In both cases, an alliance between technocratic experts and the decolonizing civil rights activists in Flint or nationalists in Khartoum began to plan for a major program of renewal or economic development marked by massive programs of capital investment beginning in 1954. However, by 1966 in the case of Flint, local residents were in open revolt against the regional economic planners’ inability to produce inclusive economic growth. Similarly, by 1964 in the case of Sudan, government officials of the newly independent state faced not only an ongoing insurgency in its southern provinces, but also an open revolt in the capital among those it believed to be its most loyal constituents, who were now in open revolt, fed up with the government’s inability to manage the economic development process. By the early 1970s, the vulnerabilities that came from focusing on a single capital and energy intensive industry, automobiles in the case of Flint and cotton in the case of Sudan propelled both regions into economic decline.
We pay attention to outrages; poisoned children in Flint or massacres in the peripheries of Sudan. However, Flint’s poverty is not the whole story and neither are the enduring small wars, which flare up with alarming regularity throughout Sudan. In terms of the economic history of the United States, we possess enough works of synthesis to recognize Flint, Michigan as the perhaps all too familiar, but still a localized outrage — a case of extreme neglect in the midst of a wealthy state and nation. Unfortunately, African economic history today lacks a similarly developed literature capable of creating an accurate portrayal of national income growth in Africa during the decades after the second World War. The scholarly field of African Studies has exacerbated problems caused by the lack of synthetic works on African economic history or discussions of national or regional policymaking because of its focus on localized studies often undertaken with an anthropological focus. One of the fathers of the anthropological turn in African history, Steven Feierman, noted in 1999 that the success of his methodology was making it increasingly difficult to tell African history at a macro-level on its own terms.
The problem is that a lack of macro or even of meso-level perspective on questions of Sudanese or Nigerian wealth and poverty threatens to lead us to ask the wrong questions. Since the 1960s, scholars ranging across the ideological spectrum from the socialist Walter Rodney to the neoliberal Robert Bates have asked why Africa is so poor. Yet, new economic data and the work of a recent generation of economic historians demonstrates that at an aggregate level Africa is roughly as wealthy as large parts of Asia and Latin America. If African poverty is not exceptional, then the scholarly discussion should shift from asking why African states are so poor to answering new questions such as why many postcolonial states tolerate such drastic levels of domestic inequality. It might be time to redirect Bates’ famous question: “Why should reasonable men adopt public policies that have harmful consequences for the societies they govern?” His original question was designed to explain slowing national growth rates during the 1970s, but today we might ask it again to try and explain not slowing growth rates at the national level, but why economic policies were put in place that created localized sites poverty and how policy officials and the societies they represent come to tolerate such high levels of inequality in their midst.