President of the Islamic Development Bank Bandar al-Hajjar visits a water tower in the Yopougon suburbs of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Tuesday. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

This week in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, we go to Ivory Coast, known for having achieved an “economic miracle” in the decades since World War II and the country’s 1960 independence from France. Gettysburg College historian Abou Bamba unpacks that history in his book, “African Miracle, African Mirage: Transnational Politics and the Paradox of Modernization in Ivory Coast.”

Drawing on historical documents and oral histories in Ivory Coast, France, and the United States, Bamba’s book challenges conventional understandings of development in postcolonial Francophone Africa. Bamba kindly answered my questions about the book and its implications for Ivory Coast today.

Dionne: Perhaps the most important takeaway I had from your book is how much has been obscured by the current belief that the Ivorian miracle was created by French and Ivorian elites. You highlight how two other sources were important in shaping Ivory Coast’s economic shifts between 1950 and 1979: the United States and ordinary Ivorians.

Your book details many different ways in which the United States involved itself in Ivory Coast’s economic development — including the transfer of technical knowledge from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to Ivorian dam projects, investing multimillion dollar loans to finance these projects, and U.S. firms consulting on these projects. What about U.S. involvement in Ivorian development most surprised you?

Bamba: When I first began the research for this book, I knew the U.S. had been involved in many Cold War intrigues in Africa. I also knew that American popular culture held an allure for Ivorians, as for so much of the world. But delving into the archives revealed far more, including the surprising breadth of the U.S. economic offensive in Francophone Africa.

In Ivory Coast in particular, the biggest U.S. economic efforts came in hard loans, credits that ultimately proved difficult to repay. This contributed to the chronic and debilitating indebtedness of the country. By 1975, Ivorian external public debt outstanding vis-à-vis the United States was up to $242 million, which would be a little more than $1 billion in today’s dollars. But as I went further, I equally became intrigued by the circuitous routes through which American approaches to modernization — specifically, the TVA model — influenced late colonial and postcolonial development in Ivory Coast. Interestingly, the brokerage of transnational French experts was instrumental in this process.

In my analysis, I called this “French dubbing” — meaning the illusive effort to put a distinctive French stamp on U.S. modernization concepts and strategies. To maintain the radiance of France, an American recipe for modernization would be “dubbed” or “remixed” by the French development experts and then implemented in Ivory Coast.

I was also surprised by the Ivorian enthusiasm for courting U.S. leaders, investors, and experts, especially given the literature on Francophilia in Ivory Coast. The story of U.S. involvement in Ivorian development suggests that we can move beyond the paradigm of “Françafrique,” even as my findings confirm the relative hegemony of French interests in Ivorian affairs.

Dionne: In your book’s first chapter, you write that smallholder farmers were the backbone of the cash-crop revolution in Ivory Coast after World War II. Small family farms producing cocoa, coffee, cotton and food crops launched this agrarian revolution after the colonial state’s project to promote collective farming had failed.

But sometimes what you call the “untamable agency of the people” worked against government’s interests in economic development, as you show in Chapter 5, when migrant laborers built and expanded informal settlements in the city of San Pedro. How much did the government take note of citizens’ interests in its development plans?

Bamba: It is hard to tell. Traditionally, development planning has been the quasi exclusive domain of the political elite and their retinue of experts. One would hope that the work of these actors will reflect or at least be informed by citizens’ interests and aspirations. Unfortunately, that is not usually the case. The failure of the plan to mechanize cocoa farming in postwar Ivory Coast and the migrant-led transformation of the Ivorian southwest region into a dynamic cash-cropping zone in the 1970s are just but two instances of the systemic myopia of top-down development planning.

More often than not, the government in Ivory Coast (whether colonial or post-independence) appropriated the interests of the ordinary citizens and attempted to incorporate them in what I would call “ad hoc policymaking” — typically in the aftermath of citizen-driven social disobedience and/or crises.

This is why I think any serious study of the politics of development must pay attention to the ordinary people’s actions. For instance, in Chapter 7, I drive home that point by noting that when in the 1970s farmers saw their livelihood threatened by the government’s indirect taxation on their production, they engaged in the cross-border contraband of coffee and cocoa beans which they sold in neighboring countries for higher prices. The popular rejection of the top-down experiment with educational television in the public school system is also instructive in this regard. Indeed, both of these examples demonstrate that citizens found ways to force the government to reconsider expert-produced plans.

Dionne: In the last five years, analysts have cautiously characterized Ivory Coast’s recent economic growth as a “second miracle.” What do your findings suggest we look for in trying to identify the transnational and local actors involved in this?

Bamba: The new economic growth so touted by observers is post-conflict infrastructural reconstruction. Let’s hope that the current boom doesn’t turn out to be yet another short-lived upsurge after a chaotic military conflict.

And we don’t yet know who will benefit. What is clear today is that the average Ivorians doubt it will be them. In the end, as they wittily say, “on ne mange pas les routes” [people don’t eat roads].

Still, we can see parallels with the first Ivorian miracle. For instance, China is involved in various projects, including the damming of the Sassandra River — much as the U.S. was involved in building both the Kossou and the Taabo dams in Ivory Coast in the late 1960s and 1970s.

What’s more, the “new Ivorian miracle” is fed by earnings from exporting of raw materials, as it was before. Additionally, addiction to foreign borrowing has returned with a vengeance, because there’s a lack of gross national savings, as a result of citizens’ low trust in the banking system.

Furthermore, most of the investments are in the commercial capital Abidjan, whose glittering skyscrapers are then mobilized to brand the country as a tropical El Dorado. In the meantime, rural areas are left to languish while many provincial cities continue to wait for the trickle effect of the expansion. Frankly, it looks like deja vu.

Of course, in some key ways, this resurgence is different from the earlier boom. For instance, in the agro-industrial sector, more is being done to encourage the processing of agricultural products in the country rather than selling raw commodities with low value added. Thanks to this, Ivory Coast is on its way to displace the Netherlands as the world top grinder of cocoa beans. The famous French chocolatier, Cémoi, has even agreed to open a factory in Abidjan.

On the whole, though, foreign capital and investment are financing this emerging industrial sector. As it was during the “golden age” of postcolonial Ivorian development, growth is largely sustained from the outside. Then, as in the past, it seems that we are still reading the chapter on “extraversion” in Ivory Coast’s biography of modernization.

Want to catch up on this summer’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular? Here you go: