Third World Oil Crises

Kaya, Upper Volta, 1980. Photo by Henk van Rinsum/via Wikimedia Commons.

Third World Oil Crises: Global Connections, Everyday Repercussions, and the 1970s

Virtual Workshop, 25-27 August 2021

Co-organised by Dr George Roberts (IASH Postdoctoral Fellow and King’s College London) and Dr Emily Brownell (Edinburgh)

The ‘oil crises’ of the 1970s are widely considered to be critical juncture in the global history of the twentieth century. While existing work has focused on their effects on Europe and North America, far less has been written about the impact of skyrocketing oil prices on Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. As the price of oil rose, many agricultural and primary commodity prices collapsed, confronting ‘Third World’ economies with a serious foreign exchange crisis and shortages of consumer goods. The oil shock forced a reckoning with the ideological and developmental agendas of post-colonial states, while posing everyday challenges for ordinary people.

Through this workshop, we sought to move beyond macroeconomic and diplomatic narratives of these events towards a more open-ended set of inquiries. How did the crisis shape the search for alternative forms of energy and materials in the Third World? How did it alter development plans and temporal horizons? What new notions of citizenship emerged? How did the sudden influx of petrodollar wealth affect communities in exporting states?

Twelve researchers based in ten different countries presented on a wide range of topics. We heard about how oil shortages catalysed new energy strategies, such as Brazil’s ethanol fuel programme, apartheid South Africa’s search for fuel security, and new international business schemes to turn Third World oil importers into producers. Other presenters focused less directly on oil, but rather on the wider repercussions of petroleum shortages. We heard about the role played by striking taxi drivers in the Ethiopian Revolution, how a lack of transportation affected Sufi communities in Tanzania, and how Ugandans engaged with the everyday politics of scarcity. Papers situated these developments amid other concurrent crises, such as a global fertiliser shortage. Meanwhile, the economic booms experienced by the Third World’s oil exporters had less salutary implications for Indian migrants in the Gulf or ordinary people in Nigeria. Finally, presenters addressed cultural engagement with the oil shock via Trinidadian literature and pan-African exhibitions.

The event connected a diverse set of scholars by reaching across regional and disciplinary divides. We look forward to keep these collaborations going into the future. We are grateful for IASH and the Susan Manning Workshop Fund for supporting the workshop and opening up these exciting conversations.