ENDA TV: Foresight started to develop in Africa in the 90s, with the late Samir Amin as the main animator. What remains of his work today?
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: I would say that the 90s corresponded to a revival of foresight in Africa, thanks in particular to a support project based in Abidjan, supported by the UNDP, which had provided technical support to about twenty African countries willing to explore possible futures. But in reality, foresight began much earlier in Africa. First, it is important to note that the term foresight appeared in 1957. For the first time, in French literature, the term foresight was used by Gaston Berger, a Senegalese-French quarterback. It was in a French magazine called « La Revue des deux mondes ». From 1960, it was taken up in Africa and a number of thinkers began to speak about it. This was the case of Senghor, Reverend Father Lebret and a certain number of personalities such as Mohamed Diawara who set up the Dakar Club. It was also the case of Samir Amin. Samir first mentioned it when he made a brief foray into Egypt after finishing his studies in political science, statistics and economics. But he didn’t stay long in that country because of the repression that was happening to the communists. But already at that time, he was well aware of the prospective in development thinking. His interest will be increased when he will stay in Mali and will be with Seydou Bodian Kouyaté, among other personalities, one of the artisans thinkers of the development planning of Mali. In Senegal, under the impetus of Mamadou Dia, the first development plan will explore the prospects of development of Senegal within a decade. Thus, from the 1960s and 62, work was done in Senegal to explore long-term development prospects. The same was true at that time in Côte d’Ivoire, under the impetus of a number of African thinkers, but also with the support of a group such as the IEDES (Institut d’études du développement de la Sorbonne), which was based in Paris and included many executives who had been trained at the French Planning Commission. So let’s say that between 1960 and 1980 there were major initiatives in foresight and among the precursors was Samir Amin. But Samir was above all the one who, in 1976-1977, pushed forward the reflection on foresight, not on a country but on the continent, and this was done through a project called « Africa and the Problems of the Future », which Samir directed between 1977 and 1978. It was a project financed by UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) and Samir, as director of this project, will conduct a major work of prospective reflection on the future of the continent.
ENDA TV: What will come out of it?
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: The results of this work will be presented at the Monrovia Colloquium which was held in 1979, when Tolbert was the current president of the Organization of African Unity. And it was this Monrovia Colloquium that identified a certain number of avenues around which the Lagos Plan of Action would be developed. So, this Lagos Plan, which will be approved in 1980 by the African Heads of State, owes a great deal to the work that was done under the aegis of Samir. All this to say that, whatever the angle from which we look at things, Samir is one of the precursors in the field of prospective thinking if we refer to the fact that as early as 1960 he was aware of prospective approaches and applied them in the framework of his work in Egypt as well as in Mali and later in Senegal at IDEP (African Institute for Economic Development and Planning). Now you are right to say that from 1990 onwards, prospective thinking will experience a new impetus. And here again I would say that Samir is somewhere in the driver’s seat, because not only will he continue his reflections on the future of the continent, but he will support a number of initiatives whose aim was to strengthen the foresight analysis capacities of African countries and institutions. I must say that I personally benefited from Samir’s support when, in 1997, I led the UNDP-supported Africa Think Tank program. And when I set up the African Futures Institute in 2002, I also benefited from Samir’s support as a member of its Board of Directors since its creation in 2003.
ENDA TV: Samir Amin was a Marxist. Didn’t this ideological orientation impact his prospective work and create barriers for him in a continent where most states followed a capitalist orientation?
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: Samir Amin was a Marxist, but his Marxism was first and foremost a requirement of scientific rigor. It was not dogmatism, nor psittacism. Samir was not one of those who went around reciting a Marxist breviary. He was a demanding man, anxious to understand the world and anxious to go beyond the foam of the waves to understand what were the dynamics that gave shape to the current world as it was given to see. He was an analyst of reality. To be a Marxist, for him, was first of all that. And to understand the world, for him, meant to understand the factors which enter in play in the constitution of this world and the inter-relations which exist between the factors which give form to this world. Whether these factors are economic, social, political, environmental, cultural or technological. Samir has always devoted a great deal of his thinking to understanding what factors have shaped the reality in which we find ourselves. But that was not all. It was also necessary to understand who the actors are who shape this reality, because behind each factor there are obviously actors. The factors themselves do not make a system evolve. It is because there are actors behind the factors that the system evolves. And behind the actors there are always strategies. An actor only has influence on a factor if he is able to implement a strategy that allows him to control the factors. So that’s what it meant to Samir to be a Marxist. To understand the factors at play in the evolution of our societies, the actors who are behind them and the strategies of these actors. And when you do such a work, it is obvious that you can’t avoid the fact that one of the major actors of the evolution is the world capitalist system.
ENDA TV: It is a system essentially based on monopolization…
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: This capitalist system develops strategies that allow it to have a monopoly on a number of key factors that are deemed important to broaden the domination of this global capitalist system, to allow its expansion and deepening, and it is in this framework that Samir Amin has engaged in an analysis of the global capitalist systems because this system, once again, is a major player in the transformation of our world. It has given shape to our current world and in particular to this integration which means that the enrichment of some can only be achieved at the cost of the impoverishment of others. The development of underdevelopment is the condition for the perpetuation of this world capitalist system of which he made a very tight critique. So I think that was what being a Marxist was for Samir. It turns out that it was also a requirement for all futurists. All of them, when they have to do a prospective analysis, start with a strategic diagnosis of the system that they want to analyze and the strategic diagnosis is nothing else than the analysis of the factors that enter in the composition of the system that we study, the analysis of the interrelations between these different factors, the analysis of the actors and the actors’ strategies.
ENDA TV: If Samir Amin was nevertheless able to carry out this analysis, did his ideas have an impact on the continent?
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: Samir was a rigorous, scientific analyst. He was also an actor. He was not exclusively concerned with explaining the world, he was concerned with transforming it. Did he have any influence or not? History will tell us. But what is certain is that a certain number of ideas that he defended and that seemed radical at the time he defended them have now gained currency. When he proposes an analysis of underdevelopment that is different from the one that was current at the time, when it was thought that there were two worlds that evolved in parallel, a developed world and an underdeveloped world, and that he shows that in reality there is a process of accumulation on a global scale which means that today there are peripheries and centers which are partly linked (the periphery being a product of the center and the center feeding on the underdevelopment of the periphery), it is clear that when he develops such ideas – and he is not the only one to do so – he comes across as a heterodox, a radical. But these ideas have now become accepted. No one disputes them anymore. No one can go back to the analyses of the 1940s on the phenomenon of underdevelopment. So from that point of view, I would say that his thinking has had an impact on the evolution of ideas. Now, no doubt, Samir had wished or hoped that the world would be transformed and that he would see a more humane world become a reality, a world where peace, justice, a less ecocidal, more responsible production system would reign, a world where partnership would replace competition, etc. No doubt he dreamed of this world. That he did not see it in his lifetime should not have surprised him too much either. Because if there was anyone realistic enough to understand that the big night would not happen overnight, it was Samir. But what is a human life in the eyes of history? I am sure it is not much.
ENDA TV: – What remains of Samir Amin’s work?
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: Well… A lot in my opinion. First of all, Samir set up or helped to set up or strengthen a number of institutions. Among them is the University of Dakar where he served in the Faculty of Economics. There is the IDEP, whose trajectory he marked and made it a reference institution at a time when it was a modest training center for a few planners. Samir was also at the base or supported the creation of an institution like ENDA. I personally knew ENDA at the time when it was a course within IDEP devoted to Environment and Development in Africa and where there were two, three professionals including Jacques Bugnicourt and Philippe Langley and a Zimbabwean called Libertime Mhlanga. It was this course that evolved into the international non-governmental organization ENDA. Samir was therefore a strong supporter of the creation of ENDA and teamed up with Bugnicourt to ensure that the organization would have all the support it could get in Senegal and elsewhere. Samir was one of the driving forces behind CODESRIA and served as its first Secretary General. Samir, we will find him at the Third World Forum and we will find him at the World Social Forum. Fortunately, all the institutions I mentioned continue to exist and we can think that the legacy of Samir Amin is still there. His thought is discussed in these institutions and I think we can say that something remains. In the research centers, in the universities but also in the political formations, the NGOs and in the mass movements there are several channels of diffusion of the thought of Samir Amin which make that this one is still alive, vivacious and continues to inspire.
ENDA TV: But can we say the same thing at the state level?
Alioune SALL « Paloma »: I think that at the state level, the results would be much more mixed. Samir has had some access to a number of heads of state, such as in Mali where he stayed in the 60s after his time in Egypt. I think he was also, at one point, a listened-to advisor in Congo Brazzaville. He undoubtedly had access to or influence in the decision-making circles in Burkina during the time of Thomas Sankara.
I think that at one point Senghor also paid attention to it when he discovered the deterioration of the terms of trade and made it his battle horse. So he was not totally absent in the reflections on development planning. Now it is certain that he could not have had a very great influence in Africa, because the African political economy is dominated in many countries by the Bretton Woods institutions, and these institutions have specialized in self-fulfilling prophecies. This means that in order to have access to heads of state today, one must begin by dismantling the intellectual shackles in which these Bretton Woods institutions lock them. It is a titanic task to try to have an influence with certain African heads of state today.
Interview by Tidiane Kassé