Interviews April 21, 2023

The Soviet Union as a Development Actor in West Africa: An Interview with Alessandro Iandolo on Arrested Development

The recently published work Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955–1968 (Cornell University Press, 2022) explores the Soviet Union’s economic partnership with three newly-independent countries in West Africa during the Nikita Khrushchev era. The Toynbee Prize Foundation interviewed the author, Alessandro Iandolo, on the story and the main arguments of his book. Alongside discussing the emergence of the Soviet Union as an international development actor and the challenges it encountered in post-colonial Africa, Iandolo explained the characteristics of the Soviet development model, its similarities and differences to the Western alternatives, and why the Soviet development assistance in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali was not primarily oriented around spreading the communist ideology.

Alessandro Iandolo is a historian of the Soviet Union and the world. His research interests cover the USSR’s economic, intellectual, and political interactions with external ideas, states, and people. His current project investigates intellectual exchanges between Soviet and Latin American economists on theorizing “backwardness” and “dependency.” He is a Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet history at University College London.

—Mirek Tobiáš Hošman, University of Bologna, Paris City University

Mirek Tobiáš Hošman: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about the Soviet Union’s development projects in West Africa?

Alessandro Iandolo: The project started a long time ago as a Ph.D. dissertation, but it was very different at the beginning. I started working on the idea around the year 2007 as someone primarily interested in the Cold War studied from the perspective of the Soviet Union. At that time, the Cold War was treated primarily as a diplomatic, ideological, and military conflict, in this very traditional sense. But in those years around 2005, there was a lot of experimentation with new topics and approaches to study the Cold War: Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War (2005) had only recently come out, and especially in London there were many people interested in looking at Cold War dynamics from the perspective of what we call today the Global South, or Third World, as would have been a more common term at the time. And I got very interested in that.

I wanted to look at Soviet interactions with the extra-European world at the time of the second wave of decolonization, and I realized that there was this very interesting story of the encounter between the USSR and the first countries to become independent in Sub-Saharan Africa, so, in my case, Ghana, Guinea, and Mali. All of them were very radical, very ambitious, very interested in socialism; yet, there was not that much written about it. So, I decided to focus on this story. It just seemed like a good combination of exciting and new.

I started with this sort of classic interest in diplomatic history, maybe military aspects and so on, but as I was doing the research, I realized that this story was essentially about development. Of course, the diplomatic and military aspects were important, and they should be there, but I would argue that most of all, the relationship was built on partly shared and partly contested ideas about economic development.

MTH: If I think of the Soviet Union as a development actor on the background of the Cold War–and we will get in a minute to what that exactly means–I would first and foremost think of other places than Africa and these three specific countries. You mention Sergei Mazov in your book who presented the Soviet’s engagement in West Africa as a “distant front of the Cold War,” something that was significant, but still rather secondary to the superpower rivalry, which mainly took place in Europe. So, how did Ghana, Guinea, and Mali enter your idea of studying Soviet’s development efforts in the Global South?

AI: That’s a very interesting question. You are right, Mazov does frame his analysis of this relationship between the USSR and West Africa as a distant front, the translation from Russian would be something like “unknown,” “non-famous,” or “non-prominent” part of history. His book is very good; it was very inspirational to me and to other people in a number of ways. But I kind of disagree with that view of West Africa and this episode, even just in the Cold War context. I think that despite everything it shows a little bit this Eurocentric view of the Cold War. The idea that the real thing was about Europe—Berlin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and all that. From this perspective, everything that happened in Africa and other places was a side show, kind of distant, not as relevant. Well, I don’t think so. I think Europe was the side show and the extra-European world was what mattered a lot more in terms of ideas, in terms of commitments, ambitions for the future, maybe even in terms of frustration and results that didn’t quite materialize. I think we should get away with the idea that Europe, this imaginary Europe, was primary.

You are right in saying that if you compare Ghana, Guinea, and Mali with other states that became independent roughly at the same time or even before, like India, Indonesia, Egypt, they are all larger in terms of population and geography. Some of them may have more natural resources or large military and so on, so you may ask why not to focus on them, instead of the countries I chose to look at. And one of the points I make in the book is that Soviet aid, however extensive, could never go far in a very large country or economy. The West African countries are smaller in size; they have smaller populations, smaller economy and so Soviet aid could have an impact there that it could not have in bigger places even if it remained relatively limited in absolute terms. The relative impact, I think, is especially important.

Another aspect worth mentioning—and this is what all these three countries had in common despite a lot of differences between them—was that they were all radicals. The people in power had very ambitious ideas for the future and they were very interested in socialism, which made them distinctive, certainly in the African context, but also globally. There were not that many places out there with such a strong interest in trying out different economic recipes and then putting them into practice.

MTH: Let’s disentangle the dynamic between the Soviet Union and the West African countries. We can start by looking at the Soviet Union. What type of development actor was the USSR? Which types of projects did they want to finance in West Africa and how did this Soviet development model differ from other approaches, like the one promoted by the United States or multilateral institutions like the World Bank?

AI: In the mid-1950s to early 1960s, the USSR had a successful economy, and people around the world talked about it. Now, we can discuss for years whether or not it actually was successful and what the actual numbers were and how they were calculated and so on, which is a fascinating and very interesting debate, but I think what also mattered to people in the Soviet Union and outside at that time was that the USSR was seen as having a successful economy that was performing well. This is the beginning of the Soviet Union as a development actor.

As for its approach to development, I wrote an article a long time before the book, which I called The Rise and Fall of the ‘Soviet Development Model’ in West Africa 1957–64. I kind of regret the title a little bit in hindsight [laughs], you know, titles, they’re tricky. But I think the model was distinctive and, as I argue in the book, it was not necessarily derived from what the Soviet Union itself did as an economy at home.

The idea behind the Soviet development model was the creation of what they called a large state sector in the economy. The economic future of Ghana, Guinea, and Mali (and the region more generally) was conceived as very much dominated by the state, public investments, and by collective ownership, government control, planning, and so on. But all this was supposed to take place in an environment in which market structures were to remain active and very important. So, the idea was a mixed economy, something similar to what people called and still call ‘state capitalism.’ In West Africa, the model consisted of an eclectic mix of traditions and practical approaches in which the state is in the driving seat, it controls the key resources and it determines the investments and production, but there is nothing like full collectivization or forced industrialization. The main focus was on agriculture, infrastructure, and light industry. Those were the three pillars financed by the state, by public money, but in which individuals and firms had an important role as well.

So, it was a very mixed model. In the book, I make the case for seeing it historically in continuity with the broad tradition of what people usually call import substitution industrialization, in which you target the dependency links from the outside and you try to produce at home the things we refer to as basic goods and commodities necessary for everyday life. You try to make sure that these societies can produce them themselves or source them themselves without relying too much on the world market.

MTH: One of the things which was quite surprising to me while I was reading the passages about the Soviet development model was how little it was connected to the idea of spreading or promoting the communist ideology, even on the rhetorical level. I mean, it was there a little bit, but I would expect this to play a much larger role. Which brings me to the question: what did the Soviet Union want to get from their involvement in these African countries?

AI: Yes, that is a very good point. I mean, in many ways, you could say that some people in Ghana, Guinea, or Mali were more interested in communist ideas than the people from the USSR who worked on development programs and projects in these countries.

The Soviet goal was a little vague in many ways, which was perhaps a classic of the Khrushchev era. But the general ambition was the creation of a successful economy, which is largely state-driven or state-controlled, but certainly not communist or socialist and certainly not with communist governments. That wasn’t at all part of the Soviet project in West Africa. The Soviet government thought: if we can somehow assist these countries on their path to economic modernization, then others will want to do the same and they will then accept our advice, expertise, and funds and the world would become a much better place, from the Soviet point of view, because there would be more and more countries in which the state occupies a prominent position and they would be generally friendly toward the USSR. And, of course, the idea was that one day, because of these changes, these countries would be able to make the full transition to scientific socialism. But the “how” and “when” was never specified.

It is a like two sides of the same coin. On one side, you could say that this is a relatively flexible approach, it took into account differences and aspirations. The other side of the coin is that—and not even that implicitly but often very explicitly—it betrayed the lack of trust and skepticism about the people with whom the Soviet government was working, you know, the leadership of Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, and people in Africa in general. The attitudes could be very dismissive, very racist in many cases, violent in the case of people from West Africa or Africans in general who went to work or study in the Soviet Union. So, the model partly came from a “good place,” but in part it came from patronizing, and often racist, attitudes towards these societies.

MTH: It seems like a lot about the Soviet development plans in West Africa was about a sort of reputation building of the USSR, not only in Africa, but also in the global perspective. Something like, if the USSR wants to be this global superpower, it has to be engaged in the development field, to kind of match the US activities there. I am sure this competition mattered as well, right?

AI: Yes, absolutely. The economic Cold War was paramount in Soviet decisions. But in the context of West Africa, the US was certainly not the prime mover. It came to the scene a little bit later. The Eisenhower administration was not interested in development programs in the region. It looked at it as a bit of a backwater, like, why should we get involved, and only later on there was much more US involvement and everything that comes with it. So, the Soviet Union was first in terms of presenting itself as a partner for economic development.

In more global terms, I think that different branches of the Soviet government understood that the main Soviet asset at that time was the economy. It was the success story of their country that, according to official rhetoric, turned itself into an industrialized superpower from an agricultural, poor society and now sends people into space and builds huge dams and so on. Regardless of what may or may not have been its reality, for many, this was what the Soviet Union was about: a story of successful economic development.

The Soviet logic was always one of competition with the West, primarily with the US. But they knew they couldn’t really compete with the US in military terms, they couldn’t beat them in cultural terms because they had a wider reach and, you know, the Soviet Union itself was kind of a victim of fascination with Western culture. Can you compete economically? Not in absolute terms, the Soviet Union was a much smaller economy, it was very dependent on interactions with the West… But you could compete in terms of this success story. There was a niche there, in which the USSR could be in theory very successful, and they jumped on it.

MTH: Let’s talk a bit about Ghana, Guinea, and Mali. What did they expect from the Soviet development assistance? What was the motivation for entering these relationships with the USSR? Did they look around for potential alternatives to the USSR? We said that the US was not particularly interested in the region at least until the Kennedy administration and the former colonizers probably were not an option as well, at least in the case of Guinea, so was there really an alternative or did they even look for it?

AI: Ghana, Guinea, and Mali were among the first countries in Africa to become independent, and it was a long process—painful, violent—and they faced a lot of resistance on the side of the colonial powers. As you noted, France took a very harsh approach to Guinea with an economic embargo, which really put the new government in a very difficult situation. I mean, how do you survive economically after independence? Nothing is a given. Ghana and Mali, they didn’t face as harsh a choice as Guinea after independence, but still, all the three governments shared the ambition of building a strong state and a strong economy, and they saw both as related. You cannot really have one without the other. So, they were trying to build them in parallel and build them ideally to be as independent as possible, especially from the former colonizers. After all, that is what independence is about. Being formally independent, in purely constitutional terms is not enough. Independence needed to be something real that you could touch, in a way. That was not something easy to achieve for Ghana, Guinea, Mali and for every other society around the world that faced comparable problems. I mean, it is a big project, it is incredibly complicated, and there are many different ideas that come into play, some in contrast to each other. What kind of approach do we take, what kind of model do we follow, if any? Yet, everyone was in an agreement that it was going to be difficult to pursue these very ambitious plans of economic modernization without some form of external collaboration to raise resources. And that presented another set of complicated choices, right? You had the colonial powers, which were still very active in commercial terms, and cultural terms, economic terms, political terms, pretty much everywhere. There was the US, there was the United Nations system, the World Bank, and then there was the Socialist world, which promised something different and better and more effective and generous. But given that all three African countries aspired to a kind of collectivist, state-driven type of economy and society, the USSR appeared more promising from their point of view. It ticked a number of boxes.

MTH: I don’t know if you also explored this dimension, but what can we say about the reaction of the West or of the US to Soviet involvements in West Africa?

AI: That is an interesting question. You know, people say that Kremlin has many towers, you know, different organizations, people with different ideas, and I think something similar applies to Washington, D.C. But certainly, different institutions in the US took slightly different approaches to that. The people in the State Department were certainly attentive, I mean, I guess it is their job, but they were attentive to what was going on and maybe they were a little bit worried. It is a strange mix of being interested in these newly independent African countries and their future, scared, a little bit fascinated by what is going on with the USSR, and also dealing with the Europeans. The British and the French are very active in trying to persuade the Americans to step up their engagement in West Africa because otherwise the places will go communist and so on. You know, the usual toolset of the Cold War.

It works and it doesn’t. All the three countries, they are keen to obtain recognition from the US and they all look at the US—in some cases more, in some cases less—with a great degree of sympathy. The US was the first country to break free of empire, it is the most powerful, richest country in the world, and also a society with a very significant African American population. So, people are interested in the US. The US government was maybe not particularly responsive, certainly in the case of Guinea they delayed official recognition and supported the French embargo and so on. But generally speaking, the US was not too present in terms of the reaction to what the USSR was trying to do in West Africa. It remained very confident in its economy and its economic model. People were worried about the Soviet Union and the Sputnik moment and all of that, but, I mean, the US was also a success story in terms of its economy, right? I think that the Europeans were worried about what the USSR was doing, but people in the US were a bit more relaxed about it. Like, no matter how big this Soviet project is going to be, we can make something even bigger, if we want to.

MTH: Let’s talk a little bit about the development programs on the ground. Your book is full of examples of different projects and they are all very specific and unique in their own way, but I was wondering if there is a way how to capture, in more general terms, what were some of the challenges related to these Soviet development efforts in West Africa.

AI: I think the common trend, which is very common even beyond West Africa, is that a lot of these projects centered on construction: you are building something, and in most cases, if not all, it is going to take longer, and it is going to cost a lot more than what you initially calculated. Gradually, it became difficult to keep the commitment on both sides when things started to go a bit wrong. People started arguing and blaming each other and no one wanted to take responsibility and accept higher expenses and so on. The USSR made promises that it couldn’t maintain, and, in some cases, this created very significant problems, too, as it became more difficult to accomplish something with declining resources.

MTH: One thing that I found absolutely fascinating in your book is when you discuss the dynamic about commodities in the West African countries. This is the time when the UN and later the World Bank, the IMF, and UNCTAD discuss the stabilization of commodity prices and the export earnings of developing countries, and it seems like, in a way, the Soviet Union was trying to do something similar on a bilateral basis, not exactly the same, but related. Could you talk a little bit about, for instance, the cocoa situation in Ghana?

AI: That case is interesting and sort of tragic in many ways. So, both the Soviet Union and the African countries had an interest in limiting the exchanges based on hard currency. None of them prints dollars, right, so if you can limit hard currency as an expenditure and keep your reserves for other uses, that is really a good thing. So, the idea was to exchange goods and commodities through barter agreements in which West African countries essentially exchanged what they called traditional produce (cocoa beans in Ghana, peanuts in Mali, and tropical fruits in Guinea) for Soviet industrial goods, oil, and even people’s salaries. So, the Soviet Union paid the agronomist who worked in Mali in cash, and Mali paid back in peanuts. This is something that the USSR had been doing for a while; it is not born in West Africa. Already before World War II, with Turkey for example, there were similar agreements in principle, you know, let’s exchange things rather than money. On paper, it can work, but it becomes very, very difficult. Barter agreements are a nightmare to manage, to keep track of productions and shipments and, I mean, there is a reason why people invented money, right? It became a huge logistical and financial challenge, even though there was no actual money involved.

In the case of Ghana, it is especially interesting and especially tragic, and I always end up in trouble with historians of the British empire about it. I am not trained as a historian of the British empire, but looking at the situation from the Soviet perspective, what you see is a country that produces only one commodity for export—cocoa beans—and that is done in the context of the empire. Ghana sold cocoa beans to British manufactures and there was this very complicated system in place, the Cocoa Board, which had been created with the idea of guaranteeing a good price to Ghanaian producers. These boards were very common; there was another one for coffee in the region, for example. Yet, I would argue that the Cocoa Board also had an interest in guaranteeing a good prize for British buyers just as much, if not more, than for the producers. The Board was more of a tool for buyers than for sellers and even after independence, this mechanism remained in place. People in Westminster, in Whitehall, people sitting on the board of chocolate manufactures, they all knew and worked with each other, they attended Cambridge and Oxford, and they didn’t have a huge interest in seeing Ghana selling its cocoa beans to other buyers and they had ways to interfere with that kind of trade.

So, the Soviet agency tasked with trying to use cocoa beans as a barter commodity really struggled, because the older imperial trade was still very present and rested on a structure that was very difficult to get rid of. The Ghanaian government was very conscious of this and they tried very hard to change it, to have more control over the sales of their most important export commodity. But this was not easy to achieve.

MTH: When I read that part of your book, I was really surprised. A country that became independent, that emerged from the colonial struggle, nevertheless had basically zero control over to whom and for what price it sells the one export commodity it had.

AI: And it is not even just the cocoa trade. Again, this is where I always argue with historians of the British empire, but, you know, the commanding officer of the Ghanaian armed forces at the moment of independence is a British army general, the chairman of the central bank of Ghana is a man from Scotland. People argue that these officials were working in the best interest of Ghana but were we to see something like that in 2023, I think people would consider this very differently. I recently read a very interesting analysis of these post-colonial relationships in the case of Ghana, which highlighted the extent to which the British government continued to exercise influence, even control or intimidation in some cases, while relying on established colonial structures. I think this is something that will become more and more prominent in the scholarship on, in this case, post-independence Ghana, but you could say the same about a lot more places.

MTH: What I understood from your book was that the Soviet Union also had a political motivation to get involved in this commodity trade to essentially cut the ties between West African countries and the Western countries.

AI: Absolutely. From the purely commercial Soviet point of view, they were exchanging relatively high-value-added goods with agricultural commodities. Cocoa was fairly valuable on international markets, there were price issues, but it was generally considered a valuable commodity—it was not oil, but it was still something you could sell at relatively high prices, at least for a while. With other commodities, it was more complicated. Peanuts and tropical fruits tended to carry lower prices, but, in any case, these exchanges were not convenient for the Soviet economy so, of course, there were political motivations behind the trade. French imperial trade was not that different. France bought agricultural commodities from Guinea and Mali and other countries in former French Africa at inflated prices, artificial prices, because it was a mechanism to control these economies, which were highly dependent on exchanges with France. This was, in a way, the cost of empire, if you want. Now, the Soviet Union in its official rhetoric presented these trading agreements as a way to favor the African countries, to help them break free from Europe and the West and to establish what they would call a brotherhood of nations with the USSR and the socialist world.

Was it a form of empire, or was it not? I don’t know. I can see a lot of arguments for and against that. But certainly, the USSR had an interest in pursuing this type of agreement and it was political. You can argue that all trade is political, but maybe in this case it is especially visible.

MTH: Your book takes a certain narrative turn by the end and what started out as a sort of pompous story of high expectations on both sides ends up being a rather frustrating and deteriorating relationship between the USSR and the West African countries, which, from the second half of the 1960s disappeared without much that would follow. What can we say about this growing frustration on both sides and the end of Soviet development efforts in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali?

AI: You are right, this is fundamentally a story of a relationship that doesn’t end well. It starts with a great deal of enthusiasm and mutual interest and then you fast forward a few years and there is a lot of frustration, rage, and resentment. And fundamentally, the interest in one another is lost.

MTH: Is this the case also for the African countries?

AI: Yes, of course. These are very complex societies with equally complex governments. Some people in West Africa remained very interested in socialism and even in the Soviet Union in particular, but after all the disappointments and frustrations, it was difficult to carry the argument forward.

Also, the governments change in the USSR and in West Africa. There was a succession of coups: the USSR in 1964, Ghana in 1966, Mali in 1968. New people came in with different attitudes and different ideas. And, you know, no one knows for sure, but I think it is very reasonable to assume that these coups in Africa are in part organized, at the very least, with Western knowledge and some degree of support. That is something you see all around the world in Congo, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cuba. Also, in West Africa, the US, China, and Europe became much more active over this period, and the environment became much more “multipolar.”

In the second half of the 1960s, the Soviet economy was also no longer a success story. It became a harder narrative to sell and people in Moscow were less willing to take risks in terms of investments abroad, so many people in West Africa no longer saw it as a source of inspiration and support.

MTH: The timing is not particularly fitting, but I wonder whether the military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 could have an effect on the Soviet perception in Africa or not?

AI: That is an interesting question. I think my short answer is: I don’t think so. At least not in the context that I am more familiar with, which is West Africa in this decade or so. Hungary happened in 1956, which is before these countries became independent. I mean, people were critical of the Soviet invasion for obvious reasons: it was an invasion, it used violence and so on, but I don’t think that people necessarily saw the Soviet Union as morally worse than the West, because they were also very conscious of other global events and of the former colonial powers with which they still had to deal. I don’t think it won the USSR many friends around the world, but it also didn’t create that much of a problem. Plus, the intervention in Hungary happened in parallel with the Suez Crisis and that was where the Soviet Union presented itself as a friend to the non-European developing countries and it got some credit for that.

The case of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a bit later. By then, things have changed, and I think it had an impact; but people didn’t see it as a watershed. It was a variation of the established idea: the Cold War seen from the perspective of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America consisted of violence, wars, and coups. Europe was relatively exceptional in experiencing fewer instances of each of these.

MTH: You said that the book is essentially about a relationship that doesn’t end well. Where do you see the legacy of this relationship? What lesson do you think it offers us as we study international development today?

AI: The short answer is: there is no lesson. I don’t believe in history lessons from the past. I think one of our tasks as historians (which the field understands very well) is to criticize and deconstruct this idea of development and to show how problematic and violent it is. And, of course, there are many other elements to be taken into consideration.

Thinking a bit more specifically about the book and that context, it is about a relationship that didn’t end well, or maybe it didn’t end from a certain point of view. The debate between believers in the state and believers in the market very much continues today; it continued in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and presumably will continue for a long time. If you are interested in economic issues, whatever your angle is, sooner or later you will have to think about that: do you want to try to solve this problem in a more collective way, or a more individualistic way? The book captures a moment in that dialogue.

MTH: What puzzles or questions do you see your book offering to the study of the history of international development?

AI: That is a very good question. I think that the main arguments are two. One is that the Soviet Union was an important actor in the field of development cooperation with other countries, and we should look at it as such, in the same way, perhaps, as we look at the US, and maybe China.

The second argument is that the Soviet approach or the Soviet model to development was distinctive. It had similarities to other actors’ models, but it was distinctive, it was special, it came out of a different intellectual tradition and it played out in a way that was unique to the Soviet Union.

In terms of what problems, questions, and puzzles it opens up, one that I have been thinking a lot about—and that I hope to write something structured and systematic about—is, well, was this empire? I mean, are we talking about an imperial relationship between the USSR and countries in the Third World or Global South? In this case, it is Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, but the question could easily be extended to many other places around the world. Was this fundamentally an imperial relationship? Was it about colonialism, neocolonialism? It may seem simple, but I think it is actually complicated. And that is something I would like to research further and offer a more nuanced answer to.

In terms of researching the history of development in general, this is a very rich field with many fascinating histories and continual historiographical interventions. I think two things are worth mentioning. One is that the history of development is not just an American thing: there are multiple actors and visions and ideas, so I hope people will become more interested in the idea, the practice, the problems, the tragedy of development, but not just from the US point of view, but including other approaches.

The second point is: the book takes a very practical approach to development. It is mostly about development as practice, things you can touch rather than ideas. I am very interested in the history of ideas, so I hesitate to say this, but I think it would be useful to see more work on the actual practice of development. Top down, bottom up, both, however you want to see it, but I think there is much more to say about the history of concrete development projects on the ground.

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