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Assessing development as a moral imperative in Africa: Gyekye's model of development in perspective

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by Dr Aderonke Ajiboro




One of the topical issues in the socio-political re-organisation of Africa in the 20th century is development, and most recently, sustainable development. Oftentimes, this issue is discussed against the backdrop of the unnerving consequences of the colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial periods in the history of Africa. But why should any society engage in a conscious effort towards development? What will such an effort entail? And why does the attainment of development become needful, especially in Africa? These are some of the questions that are addressed in this paper. The paper aligns with Kwame Gyekye’s functionalist conception of development and tries to examine some recent objections to it. This paper affirms that development is a necessity in any human society, not just as a psychological and historical phenomenon but also as an economic prerogative of any African society in the 21st century. It also gives a critical assessment of the conception of development as exhibited in some African countries.


What is Development?


The above question is a generic one. As Kwame Gyekye puts it, the concept of development is a ‘multifaceted’ one. It is a deeply philosophical one such as ‘what is knowledge?’, ‘what is truth?’ or ‘what is value?’ (Gyekye, 1988: 14). In which case, there is a need to conceive the term ‘development’ in a wholistic and universally acceptable way, for it to be understood and exemplified in an objective manner. Hence, the question can also be asked, what are the general defining exemplifications of a society that has development or is developed?


For Gyekye, there is the constant desire of governments to attain what is called development. This desire in the African situation was also very intense in the wake of the call for independence of African states as well as Third World countries. It is pertinent to note that the appellation of ‘Third World’ stems from the Age of Enlightenment and Industrialisation, where inventions and discoveries of new means and methods of addressing human societal challenges were made in the West. Any society that lacked such indices as those that produced development in the West were summarily classified as not exhibiting the features of development, or basically, as underdeveloped. For Gyekye, “the choice of effective approaches to development is what most people in Africa and other Third World countries are talking about; it is the goal of every government in the Third World … since development has been identified with economic growth” (Gyekye, 1988: 15).


Economic growth is a species of development. There are political, social, moral, business, academic development and so on, which are all parts of the genus development, though they may not have a logical relation to development as a whole. The human society is a dynamic one. The flow of thought and deeds in the human society are influenced and bound by circumstances that are beyond individual preferences. Therefore, the ability to attain a uniform or unified standard of a conception of development wellbeing may be difficult. This poses a problem for the conception of development in the society. A collective definitive approach to a particular cause may not be achievable, although the aggregation of common views may be an index for taking a particular view. This, therefore, puts man as the responsible agent for any action that is to be carried out in the society. As Awolowo puts it, “man is the sole creative purpose of the universe” (Awolowo, 1976: 53).


In other words, whatever conception or indication of development that is to be evident in any society is ultimately dependent on the organisation of the human fabric that establishes it. This is closely linked with Gyekye’s conception of development. One major point is how his conception of development puts man at the initiating and receptive stages of development. This closely aligns with Nyerere’s idea of freedom and development; in the Arusha Declaration, Nyerere affirms that all proposals made by all socio-political ideologies directed at development should be geared towards the attainment of wellbeing of the people (of Tanzania) (Nyerere, 1968). This implies that whatever purpose development is to serve, it must be to the desirable state of existence for the people.


It is therefore appreciable that Gyekye conceives of development in the functionalist way. For him, “to be developed is to have the capability to perform the functions appropriate to the object, such as society or institution, said to be developed. The nature and purpose of the object will determine its specific function. Thus, the functions of the human mind are related to its nature and purpose and would therefore not be the same as those of a political institution, for instance. The functions of the various objects that are said to be developed thus do differ. This is what is intended by my use of the word ‘appropriate’ in the definition just formulated” (Gyekye, 1988: 17).


Gyekye opposes an economistic conception of development because it is lopsided and inadequate. It is a view of development that is conceived in terms of the production and increase of the material capacity of the society, such as food production, construction of buildings and roads, good and improved healthcare and so on. There is the tendency to misapply Gyekye’s notion of development to these material outputs as functions that are derivatives of a society experiencing development. However, Gyekye notes that these (material) economic entities are tools to indicate that more fundamental processes of development may not be immediately accessible to a particular society or its critics. 


A little bit of economic history lends support to this view. Akin Mabogunje notes that there was a buoyant economic landscape in Nigeria before it was tampered with in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the colonial powers: “The important point to be made here is that a system of towns and cities had developed in Nigeria before the 19th century in response to social, political, and economic forces operating in the country over a long time. Trade was paramount to their existence, and it was trade limited not so much by the distance to be covered as by the amount of goods and services that could be effectively carried over that distance during given intervals of time. In other words, people did cover considerable distances in pursuit of their trade. But since the means of carriage was usually by head porterage or donkeys, the amount that could be moved at any one time was limited. Similarly, since the traders had to trek, the distance that they could cover on one trip to market was circumscribed. In consequence there emerged specialised centres of trading, holding at specific intervals to allow for the time required to move around. Much of this trade was for internal consumption, and only a limited portion of it found its way outside of the country, either to North Africa or through the coastal centres to Europe and the Americas” (Mabogunje, 1965).


In the above, Mabogunje paints a picture of a Nigerian society that tried to address its socio-economic challenges given the means available to them. The question of “appropriateness” to the challenge may be raised and not immediately answered, bearing in mind that trade exports may not have been one of the desirable goals in the centuries in question. Also, with the trade economy described above, one could see that there are limitations arising from the influence of Europe – even as an avenue for export – on the economic development of Nigeria, and the decisions of the traders and modes of trading were germane to the trend that the economy will follow. Obviously, the limitations should dispel any notion of trying to create an equating of development per se and economic development on any level. This is not to say that development in the objective sense does not have limitations.


In a later work, Aderanti Adepoju (1976) also wrote on an index of development expressed in environmental development. For him, the socio-economic development that is experienced in Nigeria is of a slow pace because of the non-attentiveness of socio-political organisation to the rural areas in embarking on developmental projects and lack of adequate statistics. All these species of development can be regarded as a measure of development in the society. A measure of development, hence, is not synonymous with development itself. In fact, the measure of a thing is external to that thing; it is only an applied entity on what is being measured. If this is granted, Gyekye’s functionalist account may be seen as problematic, because the functions that are meant to be derived from acts produced from development may also be argued as being manifestations of development. However, it is pertinent to note that as much as the functions that Gyekye portrays are not in such a way that it is distinguishable from it. At least a manifestation of an act establishes the occurrence of that act, if it is not the act itself.


Furthermore, Ani raises three objections to Gyekye’s conception of development and argues that the conception can be questioned: The first objection is that the ultimate goal of development is economic development. The second is that development is a process that is continuous. The third is that no society can be described as developed if development is a continuous process (Ani, 2017).


It is apt to note that Gyekye’s functionalist conception of development is integrative, as Ani concedes. By no means did Gyekye divest economic development or growth from the functionalist conception. The view he emphasises is that economic development does not, in any way, describe the general or objective view that development, as a concept, should be understood. The other two objections raised by Ani are shaky. Continuity and the status of being ‘developed’ does not deny the strength of Gyekye’s argument. Although Gyekye implies that development conceived in the functionalist/behavioural/evolutionary model of the insect is a non-continuous process, it does not expressly suggest that the process is terminal. A state of equilibrium can be attained where a nation can be termed as ‘developed’. The continuous creation of goals, needs and existential challenges of the society, as Ani rightly notes, will always be present. However, this does not imply that the state of being ‘developed’ puts a stop to it.


Of what nature then is development? The core idea of development arose as a means of tackling the ever-present challenges of the society and that is why the products of development go beyond a particular sector or problem of the society. It should be aimed at solving or addressing even the predictable or unforeseen one; hence, it is more of an ideological thinking put into practice.


This is evident in Nyerere’s view of development as freedom. For Nyerere, freedom is, in a way, a product of development and development arises out of the exercise of total freedom of people in the society. For him, “freedom and development are completely linked together as are chicken and eggs! Without chickens, you get no eggs; and without eggs you soon have no chickens. Similarly. Without freedom you get no development and without development you very soon lose your freedom” (Nyerere, 1973: 25).


Although to a large extent the reference that Nyerere makes to development can be seen to be in terms of social and economic development, he is also of the view that these are mere indices to how development should be evident in the society. “For the truth is that development is development of the people. Roads, building, increases of crop output, and other things of this nature, are not development; they are only tools of development. A new road extends a man’s freedom only if he travels upon it. An increase in the number of school buildings is development only if those buildings can be and are being used to develop the minds and the understandings of people … Development which is not development of people … is irrelevant to the kind of future which is created” (Nyerere, 1973: 26).


Hence, the nature of development for Nyerere is man-centred; if any proposal for development is not geared towards the freedom and development of the people in the society, that proposal fails as a development strategy. Just as for Gyekye that development cannot be divested of human creative ability (Gyekye, 1988: 43), for Nyerere, development cannot be divested of freedom. A society where freedom is not evident, even if all economic and material resources are available, will not count as a developed society. This suggests that the human intellect, and the ideologies it creates, is central to the kinds of development strategy it proposes and ultimately carries out. Thus, the nature of development is to be seen by its means of conception not necessarily by the means of manifestation and then the impact it has on the creative intellect of the people in the society.


The Need for Development in Society


In every human society there is the evolution of life and history, existential challenges that spur people on to think about their survival and sustenance. This, in itself, is an issue that attracts deep thought.  It is not clear if there is any human society without a goal of common sustenance at any point in time in the history of societies. The goal and/or the means of attaining the goal may be inadequate or unjust but there, at least, will be a propelling act to arrive at an end. Thus, development in every society is a need just as individuals have needs to satisfy; it is a need that arises out of the creative ability of the people to reflect on their mode of interactive existence and provide solutions to challenging situations.


For Gyekye, “development is a directed and purposive activity; it also implies the need for, or the existence of, a human subject as the agent to undertake the developing activity. The reason is that what may be regarded as the trappings or symbols of development such as high industrial output … do not occur fortuitously: they are thought out, deliberated upon, planned and produced by human beings. And this means that, undoubtedly development is a creative act, essentially involving, as it must, the activity of the human intellect” (Gyekye, 1988: 43).


The above view is also implied in J.C. Chukwuokolo’s examination of the concept of development. For him, “the developmental stance of any group of people is a product of their perception of the ultimate reality” (Chukwuokolo, 2012). Development therefore has an essential link to the human nature. To be developed or not to be is directly dependent on the people. Ani, however, makes a far-reaching statement by claiming that the African society had no inclination towards development until the modern era (Ani, 2017). Mabogunje’s view, as noted in the last section, shows that the economic history and trade development history established the idea that long before the modern era, the people living in Nigeria have always sought out means to address challenges in their existential conditions (Mabogunje, 1965).

The African situation is a particularly interesting one as regards the developmental history of societies. Unlike in the West where Marx tried to fashion out the history of society based on the Communalism to Communism model, Africa traces her history from a traditional/indigenous era to postcolonial/neocolonial era. This goes a long way in affecting the thought patterns of people in the African society.


As earlier noted, any development proposal in a society cannot be made outside of the ideological thinking of the people of that society. So, it is by the predominating idea in the society that a development strategy is put into practice. “Any people that see the ultimate reality in terms of idea will over-emphasise aspects of the society that promote idealism. So also is any society that lay much emphasis on matter as the ultimate reality. Such a society will tend to develop material aspects of society at the expense of the other dimensions of reality” (Chukwuokolo, 2012).


If this is granted, at least one implication can be deduced from this: No external society has the moral or existential right to dictate or prescribe to another society what the focus of development in its society should be. This is because the lived experience of a people determines their existential needs. Whichever way the nature of their development occurs is dependent on their creative ability to understand and produce their wellbeing out of their perception of reality. Such a society that achieves the goal of development by this means cannot be denied the status. A point that arises out of this implication is that the indices for development in societies may differ, where society A has economic indices for its mark of development, society B may have moral or education indices. Underlying this, and most fundamental, is that the unbound creative ability of the people in the society should be geared towards producing a state of general wellbeing for the people such that is expressive in the development strategies in socio-political organisation.


Development as a Moral Goal in Africa


Gyekye indicates that development is a moral goal that should be taken seriously in any society (Gyekye, 1988: 42). The ability of the socio-political institution to function satisfactorily in the provision of basic existential needs of its citizens is a moral burden for any political institution. The history of societies in Africa, as earlier noted, is often characterised by the influence of the colonisers and their prescriptions of socio-political and economic organisation after the Africans were left to ‘self-rule’. It is not surprising therefore that the majority of the development proposals that African countries make either individually as a nation or as a continent are not in any way addressing fundamental issues of existence in the continent.


The term ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ is still used to describe the majority of the countries on the continent. This is so, because the human creative impact is bounded by forces internal and external to its society. It is often noted by a lot of African scholars that the development of a society starts with an ideological thinking, where the boundless thoughts of man are given freedom to explore the numerous possibilities of addressing his/her existential challenges. Gyekye affirms that, “ideas are the products of individuals, that is, individual intellects. For this reason, the creative activity, if it is to succeed, requires that free rein be given to the exercise by individual human beings of their initiative, capacity and ingenuity. But the seminal ideas of individuals in the context of societal development, require the participation of others in order to bring them to concrete realisation” (Gyekye, 1988: 43).


Political institutions in Africa in postcolonial times have often made their agenda attractive by putting forward the idea of development of the society. A lot of strategies and partnerships are made all in the bid to achieve the development goals. But they seem to be less bothered about the lived experience of the masses; people whose demography make the society or community whatever name it is called. There is a lack of participatory governance as Nyerere proposed, which is a hallmark of personal and societal freedom that foster development. The rush for the ‘exhibition’ of material infrastructures that are of little or no impact on the development of the people robs them of their creative intellect to approach their existential needs with enthusiasm. 


Amartya Sen is of the view that, “what would be most damaging would be the neglect … of centrally relevant concerns because of a lack of interest in the freedoms of the people involved. An adequately broad view of development is (should be) sought in order to focus the evaluative scrutiny on things that really matter and in particular avoid the neglect of crucially important subjects” (Sen, 1999: 33-34).


One interesting point to note is that the result of the agitation for self-rule by Africans in the colonial times did not produce freedom of Africans. In recent times, African leaders have exhibited the acts of dominance that deprive citizens of their freedom, and which ultimately lead to a hindrance of development. A good political institution, as the existential needs of the masses will require, needs to be aware of the compelling needs of the people and equip the people for participation in their development for the wholistic wellbeing of the society. Political officeholders exhibit their freedom to the detriment of other citizens, which is an untoward act. Individual freedom should be geared towards a social commitment and “development should be a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (Sen, 1999: 3).




Human nature is averse to immobility, of thought or physical action. It is regarded as an abnormality for an individual to be in a state of inertia such as matter. Humans should be allowed to exhibit the activity of their intellect in society even where there may be need for caution and moderation. Even when development is conceived in terms of growth in the biological sense, it is more appreciable to say that an organism has developed rather than say it has merely grown. Many of the societies that are regarded as developed today can be seen to employ strategies that allow for the participation of the individual in the policies of the socio-political institutions. There is an understanding of the creative intellect of the human mind to proffer solutions to existential needs on the individual and societal scale.


Most of the proposals to gear Africa towards being developed point at education and leadership as the two main points. The liberation of the human mind is priceless when it is allowed to explore the gifts of nature of societal growth. The framing and understanding of political ideologies are better applied when individuals can, of their own thinking, evaluate and conceive the impact of those ideologies as individuals in a society. There will be no ‘parade’ of the material things as the hub of development for the populace.


Africa has for so long treated development as an external conferment by the developed countries. Political leaders have yet to understand that importation of gadgets and machines will not solve the development problem of Africa if the people are not involved in governance and are not listened to. Most African countries are in a dilemma of feasting on the development of other societies and living in an existential state that is, if not against human nature, not geared toward human flourishing. Given the political climate, which is full of anomalies but unfortunately celebrated by those who need intellectual liberation, the development in Africa must be an end that is desired, not just for the economic interest but also that it is morally sought after as a good.




Adepoju, A. 1976. Migration and Development in Nigeria, Manpower and Unemployment Research, 9(2): 65-76


Ani, E.I. 2017. Three Objections to Gyekye’s Functionalist Conception of Development, African Studies Quarterly, 17(1): 2


Awolowo, O. 1976. The Problems of Africa: The Need for Ideological Reappraisal. London: Macmillan


Chukwuokolo, J.C. 2012. Evaluating the Philosophical Foundations of Development Theories, Open Journal of Philosophy, 2(4): 224


Gyekye, K. 1988. Development: A Brief Philosophical Analysis, In The Unexamined Life: Philosophy and the African Experience (expanded edition). Ghana: Sankofa Publishing Legon


Mabogunje, A.L. 1965. Urbanization in Nigeria: A Constraint on Economic Development, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 13(4): 413-438


Nyerere, J. 1968. The Purpose is Man, In Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. London: Oxford University Press


Nyerere, J. 1973. Freedom and Development. London: Oxford University Press


Sen, A. 1999. Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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