Arnold Kling  

Why is Africa Still Under-developed?

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Megan McArdle asks this question more colloquially.


there's a whole, very large literature on why Africa is particularly screwed up. The awful climate under which most of it labors. The bad maritime geography: apparently one of the two coasts offers extremely little scope for building ports, the rivers don't go where you want them, and when they do happen to meander near something interesting, they are hard to navigate. The huge patchwork of ethnicities. The bad borders--in Asia, borders were drawn somewhat along ethnic power lines, whereas in Africa, they were drawn mostly to suit the convenience of whatever western country wanted to do business there after the colonian powers left, and there is an emerging literature indicating that border that cut across ethnic lines are a recipe for conflict, and thus poverty. The unique medical problems of Africa...

Roughly speaking, I would classify the factors that have been introduced into the discussion into the following categories:

1. Physical factors, including transportation difficulties and climate.

2. "Top-down" institutional factors, such as poorly-drawn colonial borders, or corruption reinforced by the "resource curse" and the "aid curse" (unearned wealth tending to foster corruption more readily than earned income).

3. "Bottom-up" sociological factors, such as bitter ethnic rivalry or low IQ.

At last Friday's Cato luncheon featuring Gregory Clark, Clark emphasized that settled agriculture is a much more arduous lifestyle than hunter-gathering (he said if he had to be tossed back in time prior to 1800 he would rather be placed in a hunter-gatherer society than in an agricultural one). To get the same amount of food, the civilized farmer has to work a much longer day.

When a modern factory becomes available, it's not such a great stretch for a farmer to adapt. But for a hunter-gatherer, the long work day and monotonous nature of labor are really alien. Thus, it was much easier for Japan or China to eventually industrialize than it has been for Australian aboriginals or for Africans.

UPDATE: lots of good comments. Some folks, who seem to know more than I do, say that Africa had mostly settled agriculture. Also, some links to interesting sites, such as a chart ranking the institutional quality of sub-Saharan African nations (Botswana is #3, Zimbabwe--as of 2005--is 31, ahead of 17 others)


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The author at Tim Worstall in a related article titled Interesting Thought writes:
    At last Friday’s Cato luncheon featuring Gregory Clark, Clark emphasized that settled agriculture is a much more arduous lifestyle than hunter-gathering (he said if he had to be tossed back in time prior to 1800 he would rather be placed in a hun... [Tracked on October 9, 2007 7:04 AM]
COMMENTS (21 to date)
razib writes:

Thus, it was much easier for Japan or China to eventually industrialize than it has been for Australian aboriginals or for Africans.

yes. and it was also easy for the middle east and south asia!

Dennis Mangan writes:

But the only Africans who were hunter-gatherers were the Bushmen, who are a tiny fraction of the population. All the rest were farmers or pastoralists.

mark gould writes:

another reason africa is underdeveloped is because of the lack of money and there is not many educated people. the poverty level is so low that the people that live there are not going to be able to support anything even if it did become developed

razib writes:

But the only Africans who were hunter-gatherers were the Bushmen, who are a tiny fraction of the population. All the rest were farmers or pastoralists.

1) that's obviously false. the mbuti & twa (as well as groups like the hazda).

2) there are differences in types of farming. much of africa is hoe-based farming which as a large 'gardening' element to it. asian farming tends to be plow-based and much more intensive (ergo, much higher population densities).

3) african farming has a shorter time depth. e.g., on the order of 3 instead of 6 or 7 thousand years.

Dennis Mangan writes:

that's obviously false. the mbuti & twa (as well as groups like the hazda).
Oh, yeah I forgot about the mbuti and twa. So that brings hunter-gatherers up to, what, 0.2% of the population?


3) african farming has a shorter time depth. e.g., on the order of 3 instead of 6 or 7 thousand years.

Yeah, I'm sure that's just what Arnold had in mind.

razib writes:

i doubt time depth is as big a deal as the type of farming. finns are not that much more ancient than the bantu in their farming culture. 3,000 years is fast enough for a lot of change. that's probably how long it took northern europeans to turn into blue-eyed milk drinkers (using what we know from genomics, archeoDNA and historical references from greeks and latins as time boundaries).

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Clark's hypothesis is testable - and should be formally tested since existing examples were not sampled and controlled with this hypothesis in mind.

I would start by comparing the economic status of current American Indians / Native Americans - the different tribes had pretty widely differing complexities of social organization.

For instance (I think - I'm no expert!) the Shoshone were simple hunter gatherers while the Pacific NW Tlingit had large stratified and sedentary societies.

Tlingit descendents ought to have greater economic success and higher levels of educational attainment than Shoshone.

Felix writes:

Say, I could use some good sales people. Should I look for 'em among all those African hunter-gatherers?

Factory workers (who I'll have replaced with machines by the time the remaining couple billion cheap ones are gone) I can always find in an area that's been farming for a few thousand years, right?

So, does that mean things are looking real good, long term, for Africa?

Steve Sailer writes:

John Reader's "Africa: A Biography of the Continent" is a quite stunning portrait of Africa from a "human ecology" standpoint, which is like economics without money. I'm not sure how much of it I agree with, but, still, wow, it's quite a book.

Les writes:

It is naive to assume that "Africa" is one homogenous mass. Its a vast continent with very different countries.

South Africa, for example, is not a third world country, but much more industrialized than any other country in Africa. Further, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have been economically vigorous and economically stagnant at different times.

So looking to continent-wide factors to explain economic development (or the lack of same) in various countries in Africa is a waste of time.

dearieme writes:

I've always thought "poorly-drawn colonial borders" a feeble excuse. How about the glory years of Northern Italy or of the Netherlands?

Katheryn Ballard writes:

A vital aspect to Africa's underdevelopment is the AIDS endemic. Extremely large portions of the population in African societies are affected with the AIDS Virus. Because of this, much of the continent's funds (of lack thereof) are being directed towards treating this disease, rather than being used for productive investments that would aid in the continent’s overall development.
Another key component that has impeded development in Africa is the rapid overpopulation rates. A large percentage of the world's population is represented in the continent of Africa. Countries within Africa contain high rates of overpopulation and no means in which to support it. Overpopulation in poor locations such as Africa can be attributed to many factors such as, lack of education, traditional values and beliefs, no access to contraceptives, and many other reasons

Kevin Johnson8038 writes:

I do agree that AIDS in Africa is a huge reason the continent is still underdeveloped. Working age adults in a large portion of African countries are infected with the virus, putting a large burden on the family of the member to care for the individual. This care takes up a large part of their families income, which could be spent on other necessary purchases. Education for the children is believed to be cut in half and spending on food by the families are cut a considerable amount also. All this leads to the communities having to deal with the loss of financial support and a devestated enconomy.

Karl Smith writes:

My gut says that AIDS probably has little to do with it. I am not sure the correlation between AIDS and growth within the continent is strong either.

Despite dearieme's skepticism, I like the borders hypothesis. To my knowledge the only economically successful states have been nation states or city states.

I suppose North America is something of an exception though the extreme propaganda glorifying the US Constitution serves much of the function that ethnicity or city unity does in other states.

Without that type of commitment to some civic entity the state devolves into an engine of rent seeking and feudalism reigns. Modern Africa to my eye looks essentially feudalistic.

Mr. Econotarian writes:
"...African leaders need to implement a series of reforms. They need to decentralize the power and ownership of resources, lower taxes, reduce the number of bureaucratic steps for business start ups, and establish an honest means of property acquisition while helping to define, defend and divest such property through the enforcement of contracts...Such an approach would release enormous entrepreneurial energy into wealth creation. The net effect gives power to real people who could then afford efficient and cleaner technologies or save and later reinvest in other sectors of the economy. Generally, the wealthier a country becomes, the more likely it is able to purchase food in the global market and afford more productive technologies that increase crop yields..."

http://www.aworldconnected.org/Research/pubid.2890/research_detail.asp

Mr. Econotarian writes:

By the way, there is a new index of African Governance, The Ibrahim Index, which measures the degree to which essential political goods are provided within the forty-eight African countries south of the Sahara:

http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/index/index2.asp

Barkley Rosser writes:

HIV/AIDS does not help, but is not an explanation. One of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in any country is in Botswana, one of the few sub-Saharan economic success stories. It has relative tribal/ethnic homogeneity, plus good luck with its founder and related good institutions, including functioning democracy and relatively low corruption.

Steve Sailer writes:

Africa would be more prosperous if the men worked as hard as the women.

In Africa feminist organizations don't complain that women are kept from working, they complain that women end up doing almost all the work, 80% by one estimate.

Sampson writes:

1) that's obviously false. the mbuti & twa (as well as groups like the hazda).


Yeah, we know you are well-read Razib but...

What's the proportion of the mbuti, twa and bushmen as a % of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa?

PrestoPundit writes:

Add:

4. The intellectual factor: a socialist vision of economics and society brought into Africa by African students educated at the London School of Economics.

aaron writes:

"another reason africa is underdeveloped is because of the lack of money "

Money is just a counting device. They can make their own. They are resource rich.

The problem is transportation. They need a good safe logistics network to exchange goods. "If you want to have cities, you've got to build roads."

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