Why we need to stop making excuses for Africa being poor

Image credit: Will Bennett

Our habit of conjuring sweeping reasons to explain why 'Africa is poor' has become a farce.  From the climate and tropical disease through to the continent having a bad working culture, ideas cover unreasoned to downright racist.  The reality is that many countries have faced the conditions that Africa faces, and emerged successfully.  The last 50 years bear the scars of a story that Europe cannot extricate itself from with denial and prejudice.    

Most plainly foolish is the proposition that because Africa has too many natural resources, its people have become lazy.  What happened was that the World Bank (and the rich European countries who run it) enforced a rather-too-free market, ensuring that profits did not stay in Africa.  We introduced SAPs (Structural Adjustment Programs) which led to unfair trade of resources and exploitation of inexperienced producers.  The continent continues to lose more money each year than it receives in aid, persuading oligarchs to pocket increasingly large sums.  That areas with plentiful natural resources are condemned to harbour an apathetic populace is racist and at odds with the economic success stories of the USA and Canada.

Also common to North America, are ethnically divided populations with well-resourced and budding entrepreneurs.  The idea that this combination creates economic disaster and unsolvable civil wars is one we can prudently discard.  Championing malaria as a roadblock to Africa’s development, is perhaps slightly wiser, but it was also rife in the South of the USA and Italy until the mid-20th century.  The contemporary technologies and organisations in Africa cannot yet cope with disease, but its continued effect is a legacy of hastily arranged colonial institutions, not an intrinsic problem.

This is not to say that disease, war, ethnicities and unstable economies do not now play a role in Africa’s development.  With China trading at cut rates with the likes of South Africa, Angola and Sudan, it is no surprise that reliable neighbouring economies are thinly spread.  Likewise, the landlocked geography of many countries doesn’t make for poor development, as attested by Austria, Switzerland etc, rather the infrastructure built to overcome it struggles to fulfil its purpose and so the issue is manifest.  Boris Johnson’s musing on the subject, that the issue is ‘we are not in charge anymore’ is, while rather vile considering how we ran things, misguided in that Europeans didn’t set up institutions for the sustainable management of African countries.

These issues unveil our obsession with talking about Africa as if a single country.  Such small-mindedness limits analysis to broad generalisations, which inevitably suggest that Africa will always be poor.  Whether Sarah Palin did or didn’t know that it is in fact a continent, Africa is not one inescapable plain of conflict and famine.

Of course, the reason that the continent lagged until the modern era is slavery and the future solution is inseparable from the repugnant past.  Professor of Economics, Nathan Nunn, noted that the poorest nations today are the ones from which the most slaves were taken.  Whether we ought to pay reparations or not, we need to at the very least inform ourselves that we are the epi-centre of how Africa became and now remains, vulnerable. 

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