Advances in Applied Sociology
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 223-228
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 223
Poverty in Africa and the Forces of Change: Reflections on Rawls
Difference Principle
Moses O. Aderibigb e
School of Sciences, General Studies Department, Fede r a l U n i v ersity of Technology, Akure, Nigeria
Received May 23rd, 2012; revised June 27th, 2012; accepted July 11th, 2012
Africa is no doubt one of the continents endowed with resources necessary for the achievement of devel-
opment in all areas. The pre-colonial era as crude as being described, was to a large extent characterized
by values for self sustenance. However, the crises being witnessed in Africa as it manifest in hunger, lack
and scarcity over these years have been on one hand, argued to have resulted from the contact Africa had
with the external forces of colonialism. These forces as claimed ushered in unbridled economic system
with its implications on value system of brotherhood, reciprocity and fraternity among others. On the
other hand, the internal forces which manifest in corruption, mismanagement and bad leadership, have
totally grounded the development to a halt. This paper critically examines these forces of change, with the
aim of identifying the missing link and attempt to suggest ways towards charting a new course in order to
regain the values. The paper applies John Rawls Difference Principle as a theoretical framework, capable
of ensuring that benefits and burdens are fairly distributed for the advantage of every one, more especially
the less privileged in society. This would enhance the attainment of a stable social order as it promotes the
ideals of reciprocity and fraternity in society.
Keywords: Poverty; Colonialism; Leadership; Rawls; Values
This essay focuses on the problem of poverty and the forces
of change in Africa. The paper attempt to prove that there are
certain core values such as brotherhood, fraternity and reciproc-
ity, which among others made Africa and its people self suffi-
cient in the generation and distribution of the basic necessities
of life. The inability to sustain these values has brought about
the experience of poverty in all ramifications.
The continent of Africa which is endowed with both material
and immaterial resources capable of ensuring development is
now a place that is ridden with crisis of poverty. The bane of
poverty, lack, and hardship has been hinged on two forms of
forces of change; the first one has a connection to the historical
happening brought about by colonialism. This ushered in un-
bridled economic exploitation and sapped sub-Saharan cultures
of their vitality (Abraham, 1992). However, the second force,
which is internal, is associated with corruption, mismanage-
ment and bad leadership, the effect of which is seen on the
living condition of the people. Our effort here is not a mere
glorification of the past by making reference to some core Af-
rican values, but it is an attempt to critically examine and argue
for a revisit of these values which are capable of promoting the
humanistic views of the traditional culture.
In this work, effort is made to critically examine these forces
of change, identify the missing link and suggest the way to-
wards regaining those core values capable of restoring social
order in Africa communities. In doing this, John Rawls Differ-
ence Principle is adopted as a theoretical framework. This prin-
ciple is found capable of ensuring that benefits and burdens are
fairly distributed for the advantage of every one, and more im-
portantly the less fortunate in society. This would enhance the
attainment of a stable social order and promotes the ideals of
reciprocity, fraternity and brotherhood in the contemporary
African society.
The Nature of Traditional African Society
One important way to open any discussion on Africa is to
first understand the nature of traditional African society. In
doing this, Professor Osaghae (1989) has put it succinctly that:
Typically, the unit of African society was the village
community which was a system of production without
classes because of the low level or lack of specialization
and variety in the economy; based on undifferentiated so-
cial institutions; based on joint ownership of the basic
property (land) and based on the unity of the whole com-
munity (groupism) rather than individuals (individual-
Given the above descriptions of the nature of Africa society,
it has been argued that these characteristics were not to be seen
as peculiar to Africa but were true of all traditional societies the
world over. It should be noted that universally, village commu-
nities emphasize the unity of being, existence and nature. In
Platonic mode of thought, object of existence are seen as unity
with essential realities to the end that each individual may be-
come a fully developed moral being. In essence, the point here
is that meaning and purpose as prescribed by Plato are to be
found in a state of harmonious unity.
Senghor, in a more specifically African way, states that in
traditional African society, the individual feels and thinks that
he can develop his potential, his originality, only in and by
society, in union with all other beings in the universe: God,
animal, tree or pebble (Senghor, 1975). The point we are mak-
ing here is that, human communities emphasize the unity of
being, existence and nature. It is a universal phenomenon in
which Africa is not an exception.
Most institutions of the pre-colonial African societies were
well developed before colonialism. The political system were
classified as centralized and non-centralized (Fortes & Evans-
Pritchards, 1946). In the non-centralized system, there was no
government in the modern sense of it, there was a picture of
egalitarianism and differences in rank or wealth was not well
pronounced since political office did not confer on the holder
power over the community’s surplus or over the loot from war.
However, the centralized systems had state structures and
cleavages of wealth, privilege and status which corresponded to
the distribution of power and authority. In this system the dis-
tinction between ruling classes and oppressed classes had
Other institutions also include religion and the judiciary. Re-
ligion served to ensure that duties were as moral obligation,
carried out, and sanctions were imposed against the deviants.
Religion controlled conduct, it gave support to laws and cus-
toms, thus solidarity was based on conformity. Although, by
implication, the individual’s freedom of thought and initiatives
were limited, any form of disloyalty to the community was
believed to endanger the common existence. The institution of
justice was equally not primarily to assess the relative rights
and wrongs of a case, but to re-establish unity in the commu-
nity. Punishments were carried out against law breakers, rang-
ing from excommunication from rituals and banishment. Above
all was the economic institution, which is central to our discus-
sion on poverty in this paper.
The major means of production in most traditional Africa
was land and this was communally owned and held in trust by
the rulers for the community . Every member of the soc iety, ha d
a right to land, thus equality and common ownership mutually
reinforced one another. Following Nyerere’s view:
There was an acceptance that whatever one person had
in the way of basic necessities they all had; no one could
go hungry while others hoarded food, and no one could be
denied shelter if other had space to spare. Within the ex-
tended family, and even within the tribe, the economic
level of one person could not get too far out of proportion
to the economic level of others (Nyerere: 1960).
The above description of the communal living is what Nyer-
ere conceives as the socialist achievement of pre-colonial Af-
rica and the values being attached to it by the people. He noted
that the traditional society was a disciplined one. According to
him, every member worked to earn a living, the tradition of
hospitality which was an integral part of African way of life
does not even allow a guest to remain idle. The Swahili proverb,
which has the status of an injunction: “treat your guest as a
guest for two days; on the third day give him a hoe!” was in-
deed the very basis and justification of the socialist achieve-
ment of which the people were proud of.
Moreover, Nyerere noted further that;
One of the most socialistic achievements of our society
was the sense of security it gave to its members, and the
universal hospitality on which they could rely. But it is
too often forgotten, nowadays, that the basis of great so-
cialist achievement was this: that it was taken for granted
that every member of society-barring only the children
and the infirm-contributed his fair share of effort towards
the production of its wealth (Nyerere, 1960).
The main issue here is that, reciprocity and hard work is what
characterizes the economic system of most of the traditional
African society. Meanwhile, it should be noted that traditional
society was however, not problem free, neither were the condi-
tions idyllic but the main point that interest us is the fact that
the value of reciprocity and togetherness made the issue of
poverty unacceptable features in the trad it io na l community.
Following the above discussion, the concept of reciprocity
remained a core concept in social practice in Africa. However,
some notable philosophers, namely Hobbes and Hume contrib-
uted in writing to the concept of reciprocity, while reflecting on
the issues facing Europe in its transition from a pre capitalist to
a capitalist society (Hyden, 1990). Although, the challenges
post by modernization had the tendency of regarding the con-
cept as part of a historical phase already passed by humankind
and an attempt to interpret it as over glorifying the African’s
past. This notwithstanding, a renew focus on reciprocity is still
relevant and significant.
Reciprocity as a concept is often compared to the concept of
exchange (Blau, 1972), both concepts refer to interactions con-
sisting of mutually beneficial transfers. An exchange is fully
contingent relationship: each part agrees to perform only on
condition that the other performs. Similarly, exchange is also
assumed to exhibit simultaneous performances between parties.
The exchange is conceived as a single event in which there is
no doubt as to whether one will receive as well as give. How-
ever, a formal definition of reciprocity can be termed as a mu-
tual transfer; in this regard it is the contribution that each party
makes to the welfare of the other that generates an expectation
of mutual performance. Thus, reciprocity occurs only if these
expectations converge. Reciprocity affords individuals to con-
tribute with a single act to the welfare of numerous others and
sustain expectations of mutual return. It is this interaction that
promotes the economy of affection and makes individual to
contribute with an expectation that others will do likewise.
In the Africa traditional setting, reciprocity develops largely
due to the situation where each person lives close to the mar-
gins of survival and believes he does not possess the means to
survive a hard year on his own. So, therefore, making a contri-
bution to somebody else or to the community at large with the
expectation of receiving something in return at some later point
seems sensible in such circumstances. It is against this back-
ground that James Scott refers to this kind of behavior as the
“moral” economy. His main argument centered on the fact that
peasants are risk averse and as a result has collectively devel-
oped social insurance mechanisms (Hyden, 1990).
The above discussion is simply that, reciprocity as a concept,
which has to do with exchange and interaction among the peo-
ple has its relevance in the traditional African society. Its role in
relating community to state, institutionalizing of rule, improv-
ing public management and enhancing social justice cannot be
undermine. Moreover, similar to the concept discussed above,
which added value to the African Traditional society is the
concept of fraternity and brotherhood. These, like reciprocity,
promote friendship and further strengthen the bonds of family
hood. Nyerere’s doctrine based on the communal structure of
African society buttressed this further. In his Ujamaa: the basis
of African socialism, Nyerere claims that the social structure of
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
African society is basically an extension of the family unit,
conceived as an integrated “organism”. Our recognition of fam-
ily to which we all belong must be expected yet further beyond
the tribe, the community, the nation, or even the continent-to
embrace the society of mankind (Nyerere, 1969). The foregoing
idea presented by Nyerere has come under a serious attack,
arguments have ensued on how such a proposition can be cor-
rectly conceived, let alone justified (Eruvemba, 1981). Yet, the
point to be noted here is that Nyerere’s postulation is to estab-
lish the claim that whatever is produced through land, tools and
labor in such a fraternal society is communally owned by all
members of the community. Hence, the social system has a way
of making provision for all in the community, so that no one
would be totally un-cared for.
Thus, following our discussion thus far on the traditional Af-
rican society, it is clear from the foregoing that there were cer-
tain things that could be called cultural heritage, which made up
the core values of the Africans. It is against this backdrop that
we shall look at both the external and internal forces which
brought about the predicaments of poverty, hardship and lacks
that most African nations are experiencing in the recent time.
The External and Internal Forces of Change
It should be reiterated at this point that the problem of pov-
erty and lack that most nations of Africa are witnessing is as a
result of several factors, which are both external and internal.
By the external factors, I mean those crises that emanates from
direct colonization and all its contradictions, major among
which was associated with the sovereignty of the Africa econ-
omy and after it neo-colonization with its weakening of the
African states (Uroh, 1998). The internal factors majorly bother
on the activities of leaders in corrupt practices, mismanagement
and bad leadership.
Now, looking at the external forces of colonialism, Sogolo
(1993) noted that, hardly would any writer on contemporary
issues in Africa today proceed without relating whatever he has
to say to the colonial experience of the African people. The
reason adduced for this, center on the premise that the present
Africa would not be what it is today if the colonial phase of its
history were erased. Although, one cannot, however, say with
certainty what the present state of affairs could have been, per-
haps not beyond the vague speculation that at least the economy
of the continent, its political system and, indeed, the socio-
cultural institutions would have been different. My aim here is
not to go into details on the subject of colonialism since much
work has been done in the literature (Rodney, 1972). However,
it should be pointed out that colonialism has affected traditional
culture in many irreversible ways
According to Williams Abraham (1992):
Colonialization ushered in unbridled economic exploi-
tation and sapped sub-Saharan cultures of their vitality.
They become deprived of direction and internal impetus,
and increasing survived as pageant and ceremonial. New
ideas concerning individual accountability and individual
vision and the ascendancy of self-interest in contrast with
community inte rest a s a basis of action, the growing sense
of private power arising from self-action rather than clan
direction , all of these atomising factors, acting in concert,
have loosened the internal bonds and efficacy of linage-
based clan (Abraham, 1992).
The above submission as presented by Abraham depicts the
realities of the economic situation of most African nation in this
contemporary period. Colonialism thrust Africa into the world
capitalist system dominated by metropolitan forces that oper-
ated under harsh individualism, “and by so doing created” a
new world (economic) order in which Africans were ( and still,
are) ill—equipped to compete (Uroh, 1998). The first change to
be noticed was that there was a reorganization of the economy
by the colonial powers. Take for instance, cash crops like cocoa,
coffee and groundnuts were introduced, and attention thus was
shifted from the production of food crops to cash crops and the
implication of this was the emergence of scarcity and inade-
quacy of locally produced foods, hence, the rise in the bill for
imported food items. Here began the emergence of economic
poverty, having in mind the antecedent of slave trade which has
depleted African population with its effect on the economic
activity both directly and indirectly.
With the introduction of cash crops, African economy then
became dependent on the economy of the West. This is because
cash crops could not be easily processed into finished products
and as a result of that, African countries had to search for mar-
ket abroad. The continent of Africa thus faces a difficult situa-
tion in its economic relations with the developed countries.
This relationship has kept most African nations under a perpet-
ual crisis and disadvantages till date, and the ultimate conse-
quence of this has made the economic situation of most nations
becomes a consumer of what it does not produce. According to
Oladipo (1998), the colony was simply a place where the colo-
nizing power found it convenient to carry out some of its busi-
ness. Hence, economic relationship between it and the metro-
pole was conceived in terms of an exchange of Africa raw ma-
terials and markets, on the one hand, and European industrial
good on the other. In other words, the colonial economy was
essentially organized and managed to service metropolitan
needs. The point here is that, for the battle of economic free-
dom to be won, there must be a return to some basic cultural
values which are capable of making Africa nations to develop
and overcome the present problem of poverty.
Now, coming back to some internal forces, the problem of
poverty, hunger and lack in most African nations have been
linked to the negative political and corrupt practices of the po-
litical leaders. According to Ujomu (2002) corruption and
mismanagement of the economy have led to the paralysis of
every sector of nation’s life, for instance, social service, manu-
facturing, agriculture, etc. This situation has created a fertile
ground for conflicts in the country, owing to the fact that the
needs, hopes and expectations of the bulk of the citizens for
security, prosperity and well-being, have not been adequately
Notable among the causes of poverty is the issue of political
corruption associated with most political office holders in Af-
rica. According to Gyekye, (2003) political corruption is the
illegal, unethical and unauthorized exploitation of one’s politi-
cal or official position for personal gain or advantages. The
word political is intended to refer to public affairs: the official
goods, affairs, fortunes, agencies, resources and institutions of
the state which is a human community with organized, public
institutions. There is no doubt that corruption is the bane of
development in third world and the effect of this has made the
condition of living perpetually backward.
According to Oyeshile (2000), corruption has almost become
a way of life in Nigeria; it is the bane of development and a
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 225
major cause of social conflicts. To this end, it should be noted
that the negative effects, which corruption generates are evident
in Africa. Some of the effects includes; erosion of public trust,
allows incompetence, it delays all forms of economic inter-
course, thereby boosting costs and diverting energies to the
concealment of private gain (Ujomu, 2002). These, without
doubt culminate in abandoned project, poorly maintained roads,
lack of good health facilities and inadequate funding of educa-
tional institutions.
Our position here is to reiterate that the failure of African
leaders, both civilian and the military counterpart, due to cor-
ruption and mismanagement of the public funds has further
worsened the precarious conditions of the people in Africa.
Thus, the problem facing most nations then become com-
pounded, it is both external and internal.
A Critical Examination of the Forces of Change
and Reflection on Rawls Difference Principle
Following the analysis of the forces of change as presented
above, the questions that arise at this stage are numerous: Is
there anything inherently wrong with Africa that the continent
has remained untransformed ever since independent? Why is it
that the rapid development taking place in other continent of the
world are not visible in Africa? Is Africa doomed for failure?
And what philosophy should Africa adopts that can facilitate
the development we need?
An attempt to provide answers to these various questions
would afford us the opportunity to briefly consider the views of
some scholars who have reflected on this issue relating to how
to achieve development in Africa. Following the summation
made by Oladipo (2009), some African scholars have argued
that the way to cure Africa of her cultural problems, more im-
portantly the economic problem that led to poverty is through
the reclamation of pristine Africa traditions and customs
(Oladipo, 2009). Such scholars preach a certain kind of “re-
africanisation”, and their opinions is on the premise that there
are certain values which are considered to be distinct from
(though not inferior to) Western values and ways.
This commitment to the revival of Africa culture as argued
could be a step in the right direction. In this regard, this may be
one way by which Africans can develop the capacity to correct
some of the socio economic problems that arise from the forces
of colonialism. Oladipo (2009) noted further that the develop-
ment of a universal African consciousness would therefore be a
means of undermining the socio-economic basis of the coloni-
alist or racialist denigration of the Africa personality. It would
also provide the condition for generating the self confidence,
which is a precondition for the achievement of self-directed
change in Africa. The point here is that the hope for the socio
economic reconstruction of Africa is attainable if the cultural
values can be revived.
However, some other African scholars are of the view that
since there have been changes as a result of contact with other
societies, that what Africans need today is a break with their
cultural inheritance, which they find deficient in some funda-
mental ways. This position as Oladipo (2009) maintains, is
based on the observation that change is an inescapable aspect of
the human condition and that no society can develop in con-
temporary times without science and technology which is the
hallmark of the exposure to the force of Western influences.
Having considered the views of these schools of thought, the
fact remains that on the one hand, there are certain core values
that are germane to solving the socio economic problem in
Africa while on the other hand, there is the need to embrace
some Western values such as science and technology without
which there can be no significant socio cultural and economic
development in contemporary Africa. Here comes the middle
ground, which recognizes the fact that continuity and change
are interwoven aspects of human experience. This is what some
notable African philosopher called cultural synthesis (Oladipo,
In view of the above, the hope of arriving at the lasting solu-
tion to the problem associated with those who are poor in rela-
tion to the social, economic, political and mental goods in Af-
rica seems not totally loss. Poverty, as the World Bank (1990)
defines it goes beyond having no food on the table, it includes:
“the inability to attain a minimal standard of living”. In the
same vein, according to Albert and Agwuwah Nkwazena (2002),
poverty is a severe lack of physical and mental well-being
closely associated with inadequate economic resources and
Following this, the above definitions suggest that poverty
exists when people lack the means to satisfy their basic
needs .Therefore, for this particular problem to be reduced to
the barest minimum in Africa, here comes the relevance of
Rawls Difference Principle, an economic principle that is capa-
ble of ensuring that benefits and burdens are fairly distributed
for the advantage of every one, and more importantly the less
privilege. This would enhance the attainment of a stable social
order as it promotes the ideals of reciprocity and fraternity in
John Rawls in his Theory of Justice presents two principles
of justice. The first of these two principles is mainly about
rights and liberties and the second about the distribution of
social benefits. It is this second principle which is called the
Difference Principle. Rawls believe that there are certain pri-
mary goods that all men presumed to want as a rational being
(Rawls, 1971), the primary goods fall into two main categories,
namely primary social goods such as right and liberties, oppor-
tunities and powers, income and wealth; and primary natural
goods such as health, vigor and intelligence. Rawls considers
these goods as being very basic for living a meaningful life. For
Rawls, a just society is one in which these basic goods are to be
distributed to the advantage of each members within the soci-
The difference principle implies that a just economic system
distributes income and wealth so as to make the class of the
least advantaged person better off than would be under any
alternative economic system. So, social institutions are to be
arranged so as to improve the position of those who are least
favored as regard the basic primary goods, Rawls’ view is that
the difference principle proffers solution to the problems of
distributive [economic] justice.
Central to Rawls view is that unequal distribution may still
be just in so far as it is to everyone’s advantage. Injustice to
Rawls is not simply inequalities per se, but “inequalities that
are not to the benefit of all”. What constitute injustice are the
excessive expectations of the well off. For him, therefore, a
maximum just scheme would be one which decreases the ex-
cessive expectations of the privileged while increase the lot of
the less privileged. To Rawls, the expectation are “chain con-
nected”, that is, the fact that the worst off in the society would
become better off, does not imply that the better off will be
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
cheated, or be made worst off but their own position would also
improve compare to the initial position. Thus, the principle
does not involve in the elimination of the advantages of those
that are well off. It protects these advantages in so far as doing
so helps to ameliorate the lot of the less fortunate. This is the
sense in which Rawls principle involves reciprocity and mutual
However, one major significance of Rawls difference princi-
ple is the concept of reciprocity. This is a principle that pro-
motes mutual benefit among the people in the society. John
Rawls believes in a society that promotes the welfare of all,
with more emphasis on the least advantaged. According to
Rawls, the well being of everyone depends largely on the
scheme of social cooperation without which no one could have
a satisfactory life. In this regard, reciprocity as a concept pro-
motes good relationship and expands the scope of interaction.
Following the above, the idea of reciprocity as being con-
ceived by Rawls promotes mutual bond among the people in
the society and as well facilitates the desire to better the lot of
one another. This concept would go a long way in ensuring that
benefits and burdens are distributed to improve the lots of the
least advantaged ones and consequently reduce poverty in the
contemporary African societies. It should be noted that the less
fortunate are usually the majority at least here in Africa. They
form over 90 percent of the population, following the view of
Oruka (2000) therefore, it is fitting that they are given priority.
The question that may readily come to mind here is how
would these concepts of reciprocity and fraternity become prac-
ticable, considering the challenges of capitalism which pro-
motes individualism in the contemporary Africa society. To
Rawls, justice is the basic structure of the society, and this basic
structure is for creating the means by which benefits and bur-
dens will be justly distributed. Hence, the structure that would
create the platform on which basic primary goods which all
men desire to have would be distributed is the crucial point
where the state becomes relevant in this discussion.
There are major key institutions of the society that should be
strengthened for effective distribution of benefits and burdens
for the advantage of the poor in the society. The very first and
most important is the institution of leadership. Leaders with
vision, clear sense of purpose and mind for service towards
ensuring the well-being of the people are qualities needed at
this crucial moment when Africa is in dire need of development.
A leader that is democratically elected with a good sense of
morality would be such that can guarantee a stable social order.
In addition to the above point is the need for the establish-
ment of the institution of social welfare system. This, as a mat-
ter of urgency is needed to be given appropriate attention if
poverty is to be tackled in Africa. The social welfare system is
meant to cater for the basic security and the well being of all
the members of the society. In a welfare state for instance, the
government is concerned with public health, unemployment,
provisions of basic amenities and adequate care and support for
those who are handicapped and lacked the privileged to earn a
Thus, the multifaceted nature of poverty in the continent of
Africa demands a multidimensional approach to solving this all
important problem. It is against this backdrop that this paper is
strongly advocating for a revisit of some core values which
promotes interactions, mutual bond and common interest. This
value would go a long way to improve the standard of living of
every one in society, promote unity and togetherness and con-
sequently sustain human dignity.
In this paper, efforts have been made to critically examine
the issues of poverty in Africa, in doing this, the paper analyze
the nature of traditional African society. Certain core values
such as brotherhood, fraternity and reciprocity were discussed
as what made Africa and its people self-sufficient in the gen-
eration and distribution of the basic necessities of life. However,
two forces of change were identified as the bane of poverty in
Africa; the first one is external forces of colonialism, which
ushered in unbridled economic exploitation and sapped sub-
Saharan culture of their vitality. The internal forces have been
linked to the negative political and corrupt practices of the po-
litical leaders. This work, having critically examines the impli-
cations of poverty in Africa, argues for the application of Rawls
difference principle. This is an economic principle that is capa-
ble of ensuring that benefits and burdens are fairly distributed
for the advantage of all, and more importantly the less privilege
in society. However, the major key institutions that would be
needed for effective distribution are to be put in place. Conse-
quently, this principle would enhance the attainment of a stable
social order, as it promotes the ideals of reciprocity, fraternity
and social interaction which are the core values required for the
economic empowerment in this contemporary Africa society.
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