We open up our discussion of Freedom and Development with a quotation from the Human Development Report 1992 which stated that:


                        Human development is a process of enlarging people’s choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. But at all levels of development, the three essential ones are for people to lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living. If these essential choices are not available, many other opportunities remain inaccessible.[i]


            This paper seeks to explore the issue of how and to what extent personal freedoms enjoyed by individuals and social freedoms enjoyed by communities can be tempered for the sake of development and modernization.  This issue is particularly pertinent at this point in time because we are witnessing two major social movements, somewhat intersecting. Some shrill voices argue that communities must develop and modernize, while equally shrill voices from individuals and communities argue for more freedoms and rights to act in a manner deemed fit by different actors.

            These kinds of movements are not entirely new in society, nor are they unique to Sub-Saharan Africa, they have been experienced elsewhere in the world since early historical times.  But whereas such movements, for example, were experienced in the Western world slow by and in sequence, these same movements appeared in sub-Saharan Africa as a thunder-bolt and simultaneously, raising serious social questions of the internalization of values and realignment of priorities.

            We note for example that whereas developed Western societies conclusively secured the economic foundations of their societies long before they had to contend with demands of their citizens for personal and social rights and freedoms, developing communities are in a somewhat different, if more complex, position, trying to secure their economic and development foundations at the same time as their populations clamour for their social and personal rights and freedoms.

            The theoretical problem in the circumstances is whether it is possible to lay foundations for social/economic development at the same time that we lay the foundations for the realisations of social and personal rights and freedoms?

            At first, the question appears pointless because from a common, everyday standpoint the relationship between freedom and development seems clear enough to warrant no serious critical discourse.  Politically, free people are those who can enthusiastically and effectively participate at all levels of their society and in so doing release their creative energies and entrepreneurial talents, which can be harnessed for the development of society.  It is also true that a prospering and dynamic economy would require a spirited population, courageous, not fearful of self-expression, and open to debate and discourse.  A population in which a people were allowed free reign and competition for their ideas would, following this same argument, be the kind of population where the competition of ideas in areas of economic and development realms would be possible and would engender the advancement of society.

            From these two considerations it would appear that freedom in all its generic meanings is a necessary prerequisite for development as pointed out by the world report quoted in the introduction of this paper. However, an historical-empirical study of the relationship between freedom and development reveals that in the name of development, personal as well societal freedoms have been curtailed—not only in the historical past, but even in the contemporary period—all in the name of socio-economic development.

            For our historical-empirical study, we shall go to Great Britain in the early days of its industrial development.  Historically, at the time Britain was at the threshold of her glory as an industrial as well as a colonial power. There was an internal burst of technological and industrial advance.  Rural folks migrated to towns to take part in the technological advancements, leaving the rural areas empty and ready for land consolidation.  Merchants moved far and wide looking for raw materials for their industries and markets for their finished products, giving rise to the period’s colonial expansion. This historical period was known as the Mercantilist period.




            One key aspect of Mercantilist ideology of great importance to the issue under discussion here was the theory of nationalism, a theory which was in many respects against what we would today call the spirit of individual freedom and human rights.

            Whereas the spirit of individualism frees the individual from the shackles of social and central government and whereas public institutions are simply aids or means to the attainment of individual ends; in contrast, the spirit of nationalism posited the nation as the major point of consideration. Individual persons were only constituent parts and were treated as subordinate to it in every aspect.  Individual human beings could be compared to the limbs of the body in their relation to the whole person.  These limbs had their being and meaning only in relation to the whole body.

            The subordination of personal rights and individual freedoms had no better expression than the one we find in the Mercantilist theory of wages.  We are informed that:


                        Low wages were thought desirable because they diminished costs of production, made possible underselling of foreigners in their own markets, and this contributed towards the enlargement of the volume of exports.  The fact that they would lower the well being of the masses, thwart their like purposes, and prevent their making the most of themselves did not seem to be a matter of great concern.  To be sure it was recognised that there was a limit below which wages should not be pushed, namely that which was essential to healthy, vigorous animal life, but this limitation was recommended not in the interest of individuals but because a healthy vigorous population was necessary for the maintenance of armies and navies.[ii]


            But some thinkers were even more cynical.  John Carry is quoted to have said that “while a good diet was essential to health, health was not specifically described as being a source of increased productivity.”[iii]

            In Mercantilist philosophy, we encounter not only what we would ordinarily consider abuse of individual worker’s rights, but also wanton disregard of individual property rights especially, as enshrined in what we may call the Mercantilist entrepreneurial theory.  According to that theory, the sovereign (the King or Emperor) was seen as a great landlord or today’s chief executive of a corporation.  The sovereign saw it as his duty to develop resources to “to the extent required by the needs of the state.”[iv]  Accordingly, there was nothing that the sovereign could not undertake directly for or on behalf of the state.  Interference with private property was justified if the realisation of state policy was at stake.  Men and property were simply tools to be used as needed by the larger demands of the state.

            Infringement an personal rights was not confined only to economic matters.  Even educational theory was similarly tailored not to advance the well-being of the individual learner, but the demands of society.  We note for example that while poor labourers who lived on bare subsistence had “charity schools” built for them, these were challenged by mainstream Mercantilist Ideologues who argued that “the education provided might make the lower order dissatisfied with their station in life and deplete their ranks.”[v]




            Mercantilist Europe was not unique in its repressive tendencies.  Japan, under the Tokugawa reign (17th century) had developed equally repressive practices which overflowed into the subsequent Meiji period. We note for example that in the period under discussion here, Japan developed a repressive exclusive policy (1616) intended to insulate the Japanese from external, notably from Christian, influences. The anti-foreign legislation (1636) and the overall Tokugawa ruling class philosophy was basically designed to “keep people steeped in ignorance.”[vi]

            The subsequent Maiji dynasty, although purportedly enlightened, was in many ways a continuation of the Tokugawa philosophy.  The Meiji rulers, very much like the Mercantilist thinkers of Europe, also attempted to “expand national power as the end of state policy, while keeping a firm grip themselves on the levers of control.” [vii]  Although the Tokugawa rulers before them had tried to control education by denying it to the majority of labourers lest it makes them dissatisfied with their lot in life, the Meiji rulers by allowed many people access to education, but even then, “subservience to the state was to be made part of the curriculum.”[viii] Alluding to the long tradition of using education as a way to control society, Marion J. Levy has observed:


                        The Japanese are not the only people to use state education to enforce social discipline within the established order but they were pioneers in the more modern techniques of this form of regimentation.[ix]


            Over all we note that whether in Europe or Japan, the builders of today’s ‘developed’ countries regarded the pursuit of wealth and centralised power as coordinate objectives each reenforcing the other.  There was the feeling that a strong economy, characterised by manufacturing and internal and foreign trade would reinforce the state; but a strong state was itself conceived as a sine qua non for a strong economy.

            Given those state objectives vis-a-vis the rights and freedoms of the individual, for an overall evaluation of Mercantilist ideology in respect to those values. We refer to the apt and insightful assessment of Arnold Scot:


                        Criticism of the Mercantile system . . . would be easy but useless. Its defects as an economic policy of universal application or as a body of doctrine to guide statesmen and economists are obvious to present day students. When considered with reference to the problems of the time in which it flourished, however, it is difficult if not impossible to find fault with the system.  It certainly played an important role in the history of European civilisation.  It helped to build up the great states of England, France and Germany and was a most efficient means of economic progress in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.[x]


            The point is well made.  Mercantilism both as a theory and practice might have been repugnant, but that repugnancy is only visible if seen from a historical perspective.  When the theory and practice was applied, it was a positive ideology that achieved the economic development of what later in the 20th century were to be considered developed countries.

            Mercantilist thinkers must have had at the back of their minds the question Jesus asked his followers at Emmaus: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things to enter into his glory?”[xi]




            The physiocratic reaction to Mercantilism, the economic ideas of Adam Smith, the socio-political ideas of J. S. Mill, John Lock and other libertarian thinkers all swayed thinking away from the Mercantilist “ideals” of state control and supplanted them with the ideals of individual freedom and human rights.

            The physiocrats who were the first to react to Mercantilism, opined that “commerce should be entirely freed and untrammeled by obstruction of any kind on the grounds that free competition between free merchants was essential to the maintenance of proper prices.”[xii]  The state, according to these thinkers, was assigned the more modest duty of educating the public so that they could understand the working of the natural order of things and also of providing and maintaining public such works as roads, bridges, harbours, etc.

            Adam Smith, a close follower of the physiocrats, would normally have agreed with the mercantilist ideology concerning human nature.  Considering that man was by nature selfish and egoistic, it would make perfectly good sense for him to be under the strict tutelage of state control for the proper harmonisation of his selfish impulses with the needs and interests of society.  Smith’s libertarian impulse, however, led him to develop an entirely different thesis. Instead of seeing selfish men as something evil and therefore to be suppressed, he rationalised selfishness in his theory of the invisible hand. He argued that by pursuing one’s own personal (and often selfish motives), individuals unwittingly promoted social well-being.  “By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”[xiii]  Following that line of argument, society needs to allow individual social actors maximum freedoms to do what they like, with a view to ultimately and maximally benefiting society.

            J. S. Mill similarly saw in libertarian philosophy the key to human advancement.  He was for the removal of all sorts of impediments that stand in the way of people’s attempts at self-advancement.  He was particularly irked by self-imposed customs which he saw as hindrances to advancement.

            For J. S. Mill, economic progress depended, as did the augmentation of human welfare, “upon two types of improvements—upon the extension of man’s knowledge of the laws of nature and his capacity to remove both barriers imposed by an unbeneficient nature and barriers imposed by men on themselves in the form of beliefs, customs, opinions and habits of thought.”[xiv] 

            Anticipating what was later to be known as human resources management, J.S. Mill was of the view that “successful production . . . depends more on the qualities of the human agents than in the circumstances in which they work. There is hardly any source from which a more definite amount of improvement may be looked for in productive power, than by endowing with brains those who now only have hands.”[xv]  Note that whereas Mill was at the forefront popularising education, at the same, he minimised the role of government in economic affairs in part because the concentration of many economic functions in the hands of government would destroy person’s individuality and liberty.[xvi]




            Developed countries received libertarian ideas concerning personal freedoms and human rights at a time when their economic foundations had been secured.  The ideas of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill and John Locke all emerged in a society which regrettably or thankfully had passed through the Mercantilist period and had experienced certain concrete economic achievements, which the subsequent libertarian ideas could not undo.  It was one thing to look back regrettably at what had happened during the period of economic ascending; it was another to realise that history could not be undone.  Moreover, it could be argued that the libertarian ideals themselves had been conceptualised against a background by provided mercantilism—however painfully—and that without it, possibly, those ideals would not have been concretised, let alone been conceived.

            Third world economic development is in a somewhat different situation.  No sooner had Africa entered her “Mercantile period” than we started to hear clarion calls for respect for personal freedoms and human rights.  Whereas Western Europe passed through clearly differentiated historical epochs with each epoch narrowly focused on a certain ideological preoccupation, we are witnessing a Third World grappling with laying foundations for economic benefits, but at the same time contending with voices clamour for respect of personal freedoms and human rights. 

            Note for example, that in its efforts to resuscitate its ailing economies, sub-Saharan Africa has been advised to undertake structural adjustment programmes.  These programmes have come with whole packages of conditions that entail, among other things, a reduction of the labour force (thereby forcing many otherwise able-bodied people into unemployment or unwanted and often degrading forms of employment), then cutting down on educational and medical subsidies thereby denying many brilliant but poor students chances to access higher education and denying many poor people badly needed medical care. All these are advanced in the name of economic development.

            The same quarters recommending structural adjustment programmes at the same time call upon African countries to speedily democratise, to open political space and the put human rights issues high on the political agenda.  Among the human rights that must speedly be attended to are the right to work, the right to medical care, the right to food, etc .

            The challenge facing African theorists and political actors is: How to reconcile the demands of mercantilist-like structural adjustment programmes with libertarian ideals that uncompromisingly call for respect for human rights and personal freedoms?  How, for example, reconcile the libertarian demand for the right to work or the right to medical care with the demands of a mercantilist ideology that preaches restructuring economies and tightening individual and social expenditures?

            Before we reflect further on these questions, we need to revisit the two ideologies under discussion here to look at the philosophical underpinnings that informed them.  Mercantilism, we recall, was informed by the philosophy that economic development requires discipline and that discipline can be ensured only when and where there is control and restriction.  Curtailing freedom, so this line of thinking goes, ensures stability which in turn enables government to plan and execute agreed upon plans.

            At the other end of the scale are the libertarians whose central thesis is that development can take place only when and where free individuals participate in the different kinds of endeavour in their society.  By freely participating in matters affecting their communities, individuals release their creative potential not only for their own benefit but also, and ultimately, for the larger society to which they belong.  According to this school of thought, only individuals who are free (as opposed to slaves) can meaningfully and productively take part in the development of their communities.

            Given the diametrically opposed rationalies for the two ideological positions, the challenge facing theorists in the circumstances is: what new paradigms to develop that will make sense of the now contemporaneous mercantilist and libertarian realities?  What new paradigms do we evolve that will take cognizance of the fact that the realities of mercantilism and libertarianism are real and contemporaneous, not following one upon the other successively as happened in Europe or Japan.

            The challenge facing African theorists is to develop theoretical paradigms that can focus and ultimately illuminate the ideological constellation obtaining in the region. This time round, Africa may not have to appropriate foreign-conceived theoretical frameworks as has traditionally been done because the realities here are peculiarly African.[xvii]

            In this matter we shall have to look for typically African solutions. Hence we turn to African traditional sources to explore how individual and social interests were mediated.




            The conflictual ideological situation raised in our discussion ought to be appreciated against a background where external actors have wittingly or unwittingly tried to impose externally conceived theoretical and conceptual frameworks upon African reality.  We note as our starting point that the kind of cleavages between man and society that informed mercantilist and libertaranian philosophy were not only unknown in Africa, but were also incongruous with the African psyche. People in Africa saw themselves in a symbiotic relationship with society, a point well made by a renown African scholar, J. S. Mbiti, “I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am.”[xviii]

            In that conception of man and society, we have a relationship such that whatever is injurious to society is injurious to the individual; similarly whatever is injurious to an individual is injurious to society.  Accordingly, suppression of individual rights and personal freedoms as experienced during the mercantile period, ostensibly for economic development, was not only injurious to the individual but to society as well.  Similarly the libertarian elevation of the individual at the expense of society, ostensibly to highlight and concretise man’s freedom and rights, was not only likely to compromise society but would in the short and long run also compromise the individual who would end up with no rights after all.

            The traditional African perspective sketched here has been incorporated in international development philosophy.  For example, according to the Cocoyac declaration adopted in October 1974 by a symposium convened by UNEP and UNCTAD on patterns of resource environment and development strategies, it was explicitly stated hat “the goal of development should be not to develop things, but to develop man.”[xix]  That same declaration goes on to state that “Development must be aimed at the spiritual, moral and material advancement of the whole human being, both as a member of society and from the point of view of individual fulfillment.”[xx]  The point is well made: people should not be seen or conceived as the Kierkegardian solitary individual, rather they should be seen in the sense elucidated by Mbiti.

            Already we can see that both mercantilist and libertarian conceptions of peoplen vis-a-vis the state missed some very important insights about people in society.  New paradigms of the individual and society need to show that for the well-being of the individual in society, we need a new conceptualisation that emphasizes that happy, healthy individuals, enjoying personal freedoms and human rights can exist only in happy and healthy societies where the ethos of the community is conducive to the protection of rights and freedoms.

            In a nutshell, we can already see that our new paradigm calls for mechanisms that strengthen not only the well-being of individuals but of society as well.  Both ideologies were individually lop-sided because they failed to see the continuum between individual and society and vice versa—a point aptly made by Arthur Koestler:


                        No man is an island; he is a “holon.”  Like Janus, the two faced Roman god, holons have a dual tendency to behave as quasi-independent wholes, asserting their individuality, but at the same time as integrated parts of longer wholes in the multileveled hierarchies of existence.  Thus a man is both a unique individual and a part of a social group, which itself is a part of a larger group, and so on . . . thus polarity between the self assertive and integrative tendencies is a universal characteristic of life.  Order and stability can prevail only when the two tendencies are in equilibrium.  If one of them dominates the other, this delicate balance is disturbed and pathological conditions of various types make their appearance.[xxi]


            Applying these reflections to contemporary African realities, we note that while cleavages could have been sharp in the course of European civilisation, on the one hand, a firm foundation for economic development, while on the other hand, it buttressed individual human rights and personal freedom. Though these cleavages overflowed to Africa, nevertheless, the overall tendency in Africa has been more towards social integration than towards the assertion of individuality—for whatever reasons.

            If one person is because we are, and if we are because one person is, and if we deeply believe in the value of an integrating African philosophy, then neither the individualism associated with libertarianism nor the nationalism espoused in the name of economic development à la marcantilism is an appropriate paradigm for Africa.  The paradigm workable here would be one that recognises that the well-being of the individual overflows to the well-being of society and, conversely, the well-being of society can be meaningful only if experienced in individual people’s lives.

            If we grant that the quest for freedom and the enjoyment of human rights means no more than the gradual and progressive removal of all restrictions on the unfolding of human potentialities, this unfolding of human potentialities, in addition to being conceived in individual terms, should be seen in terms of the family, the village, the tribe, the nation and the entire world.  Removing restrictions, therefore, will be removing those restrictions that impinge not only on the individual, but on entire societies.

            As we reflect on impediments that stand in the way of the unfolding of society we can begin to gain some insights into the kind of programme envisaged here.  Sub-Saharan Africa has repeatedly complained about unfair trading practices, where we, for example, buy indiscriminately from the developed world, but where our products never access fully the markets of the developed markets world. What if Africa accessed developed markets for her agro-products where she has a comparative advantage? Then sub-Saharan Africa would address: (1) The problem of economic underdevelopment that has bedeviled the continent for  millennia; (2) the problem of human rights and personal freedoms, because greater numbers of people would be employed, in turn meeting many of their basic requirements for access to jobs, and, generally the reduction of many problems caused by poverty?

            In the same vein, if we grant that a strong nation is necessary for economic well-being, our conception of a strong nation should start and should ultimately consist of strong individuals.  Indeed today, we see the emergence of a new image of the individual who is cosmopolitan in outlook and increasingly, for example, speaking an international lingua franca, interested in exploiting whatever opportunities there may be anywhere in the world, even if exploiting those opportunities could occasionally lead to a compromise of personal freedoms and human rights.  We are witnessing a new type of individual,  geared to living in a borderless world where the former borders along rivers and mountain ridges are dissolved thanks to new information technologies.  People are attempting to impose their individuality, and doing so in a society that is itself highly democratic and appreciative of this individual efforts.




            In Africa we experience enormous problems of underdevelopment, illiteracy, massive internal and external debts, population explosion, high mortality rates, etc. All these and similar problems have been known for a long time and need no restatement.  What needs to be stated is that while the larger society to which one belongs is wreathing under the afore mentioned problems. There is no way enjoyment of individual freedom and human rights will lead to self-fulfillment, to full self-realisation, to a life of dignity and self-respect, in short, to economic development.  It will  be no value to anyone in a society to get a Ph.D. in heart surgery when neighbours cannot control diarrhoea. There will be no point in individual families practising family planning when the larger society is untouched by similar concerns.  There will be no way a libertarian will realise his cherished values in a deprived society.  Similarly, there will be no way nationalist tendencies can succeed when individual men and women are disenfranchised and weakened.  Development in Africa will have to be based on a collective effort, David Kaulem has very aptly gotten the point, “The only thing that can further true development in Africa is unity, true common spirit; Africa will not be able to base their struggle on individual effort”.[xxii]




            [i]   Human Development Report 1995, UNDP (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 11.

            [ii]. William A. Scott, The Development of Economies, (New York: The Century Co., 1933), p. 18.

            [iii]. Bert F. Hoselitz (ed.), Theories of Economic Growth (Glence, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960), p. 49.

            [iv]. William A. Scott, op. cit., p. 20.

            [v]. Bert F. Hoselitz (ed.), op. cit.,  p. 49.

            [vi]. Marion J. Levy, “Contrasting Factors in Modernization of China and Japan.” In Sunion Kuznets, Wilbert Moore and Joseph J. Spengler, Economic Growth: Brazil, India and Japan (Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1955), p. 544.

            [vii].  Ibid., p. 539.

            [viii].  Ibid., p. 544.

            [ix].  Ibid., p. 544.

            [x]. William A. Scott, op. cit., p. 51.

            [xi].  Luke, 24:26.

            [xii].  William A. Scott, op. cit., p. 61.

            [xiii].  Ibid., p. 86.

            [xiv].  Bert F. Hoselitz (ed.), op. cit., p. 121.

            [xv].  Ibid., p. 138.

            [xvi].  Ibid., p. 143.

            [xvii]. These matters are peculiarly African because as we have argued above, Sub-Saharan Africa finds herself in a situation where her population is subjected to mercantilist-like treatment under structural adjustment programmes. But at the same time, she is being bombarded by human rights advocates calling for ever more freedoms in an ever-increasing number of areas.  Many developed countries have not faced a similar problem having attended to their economic matters long before they had to contend with the libertarian ideals of human rights and personal freedoms.

            [xviii]. J.S. Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (London: Heineman Educational Books, 1969), p. 24.

            [xix]. Paul Harrison, The Third World Tomorrow: A Report from the Battle Front in the War against Poverty (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 41.

            [xx]. Ibid., p. 41.

            [xxi]. Arthur Koestler, Janus, A Summing Up (New York: Random House, 1978), in inner cover flap.

            [xxii]. David Kaulem, “The Conception of Freedom in Contemporary Africa.” In A.T. Dalfovo, Reading in African Philosophy (Kampala: Department of Philosophy, Makerere University, 1990), p. 108.