Why is Africa poor?

Two common answers:

SLAVERY: The slave trade that exported millions people from the continent has been officially over for well over a hundred years. The impact of this removal of persons should have almost no impact on the rate of development today–especially since the population has risen significantly in the last 100+ years.

COLONIALISM: They are left with undesirable artificial colonial boundaries, non-diversified economies from colonial mono-crops and mono-minerals, and the unnatural grouping of people creates political strife. Yet, colonialism has been over for about 40 years and within the time of 40 years significant development and reorganization should have occurred.

Some say (even today!) it is because black people are somehow biologically and socially inferior. But that is a worthless generalization that wouldn’t even answer the question if it were true.

So why is most of Africa poor?

You forgot the biggst factor in the Post-colonial period (although I think you underestimate the ravages of colonialism):

COLD WAR: The first 30 years of the post-colonial period was typified by the western capitalists and the eastern socialists undermining any government that they perceived as appearing too successful while attempting the “other guys’s” economic and political system.

(Regarding the recovery from the colonial period: unlike the British in India or the French in Indo-China, the European powers in Africa tended to not train local people to handle the day-to-day bureaucracy of keeping the government going. When they pulled out,many of the countries did not have a developed infrastructure upon which they could rely while they developed their economies (which were being subverted by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.)

So say colonialism never happened: would Africa be more advanced than it is today?

Of course one can question whether or not our western idea of being “developed” or “advanced” is more desirable than the traditional African way of life. So assume that one considers things like higher lifespan, decreased sickness and disease, decreased starvation, etc. to be desirable achievements.

You neglect here the trans-Saharan slave trade --and raiding-- to the Muslim world which continued into the late 19th century in some regions. To the extent the slave trade resulted in weakened local political entitities (kingdoms, republics, whathaveyou), which facilitated the penetration of the colonial powers later on, one might argue for a direct influence. Here, of course, we’d be looking at deep causality and not proximite causes.

As another poster mentioned, you’re neglecting the reality of the immediate post-decolonization period, that is the Cold War and the subsequent freezing of boundaries, funding of tyrants and civil wars etc. – should have does not mean must have.

However you’ve hit on a valid point, after an initial period of promise the sub-Saharan parts of Africa have been stagnating in large part. Clearly there was the possibility of progress in the past 40 years, after all East Asian countries at similar levels of initial development have done somewhat better over all.

I think, however, you hit upon the answers in your own post.

(1) Colonial boundaries often have grouped peoples with either no past together in a civil society or with hostile histories. Little pre-independance precedent was established to create a harmonious civil society. This is not good at all for future stability. Nigeria is the prime example of this: The Muslim North and the largely Christian South have conflicting socio-political traditions in just about every domain immaginable. Logically speaking they do not make one state.

(a) Let’s not forget that the colonial masters (1) tended to exploit divide and rule tactics, pitting Xtian vs Muslim, Yoruba vs Hausa to prevent unity against them (2) colonial regimes tended to be authoritarian, brutal and often corrupt. Does this sound familiar? Bad examples in political tradition set, bad examples followed.

This differs somewhat from East Asian experience (vast generalization alert) where to a greater extent the colonial powers respected the indigenous political entities and governing styles might be said to have been marginally better.

(b) post-independence politics immediately fell into the Cold War trap. Both the Soviets and the Americans (or better the West generally) funded leaders who turned into (if they were not already) despots. Perhaps this is actually a new reason, but it bears mentioning under the rubric of the mal-formed colonial/post colonial state. Borders, everything was frozen in the Cold War – any change was a bad change in the dominant view of the time.

(2) Economies, non-diversified mono-product: While a problem to an extent, the non-diversification after independence really can be as much laid at the feet of the poor economic policies pursued in the post-independence period. The two most popular state building economic policies, pseudo-soviet style socialism or state capitalism both turned out to be largely barely disguised robber baronism. This returns us to the weakness of the colonial state, its artificiality, lack of roots in positive local traditions and the urge to try to make it real. Yet the efforts to create a real state in most of the continent seem to have become perverted early on.

(3) Nature (added reason): Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa is not well-endowed when it comes to agricultural soils capable of sustaining intensive agriculture. Much of the continent is subject to severe drought, those areas which are wet generally have fragile soils and are plagued with debilitating disease for both man and domestic animals. Recalling this is where we evolved, its unsurprising there are more disease specifically adapted to people. None of the above natural factors are in and of themselves enough to prevent development but certainly can be considered as tipping factors to help prevent sound development.

My resume: Utterly rotten historical circumstances at independence, combined with poor post-independence political choices and outside interference contributed significantly to the current state. Nature has added insult to injury by being largely unkind in the past 20 or 30 years. Significant reorganization was not possible because of the Cold War, significant development did not follow for the combined reasons mentioned above.

I think these folks did a good job at answering your question.

According to David Lambs book “The Africans”, one more factor is what I call the “Tribal Chief Syndrome”. Presidents and Heads of States of African countries are considered by many to be Kings and Royalty, to rule without imounity. Absolute power corrupts absolute, and that is whey there is so mucxh corruprion in Africa.
It doesn’t help that many of these leaders take power by force.

The reason for this is African culture. In it, leaders of tribes are considered almost Godlike. Hence, the same goes for someone elected “president” of the country. Eventually most of these guys turn into corrupt dictators, or take power ijn a coup and rule with such an iron hand that no one dare opposes their actions.

Some of the more notorious examples:
Central African Republic became the Central African Empire in 1976 when Jean-Bodel Bokassa declared himself Emporer in a $1 million ceremony in sweltering heat in downton Bangui. The Emporer was overthrown in 1979.

Joseph Desire Mobutu became President of Congo in 1965; renamed himself Mobutu Sese-Seke and renamed the country Zaire and declared it an African superpower. Billions of dollars stolen later, Mobutu was ousted by the equally corrupt Laurent Kabila a few years ago.

Fancisco Macias ruled Equatorial Guinea from 1968-1979. Under his regime, 1/3 of the population was either executed, died, or fled. Macias forced thousands of mainaland citizens to work as slaves on the island in a brutal forced labor.

There are scores of other examples, including of course, Idi Amin. Chuck Taylor in Liberia. Various Generals in Nigeria, the most curropt nation on Earth.

As for any implications that Africa is poor because black people are inferior, these racsist morons forget that Africa is home to many many pre-Colonial civilizations such as:

Cush (invaded and conqured Egypt)
Not to mention Mali, Zimbabwe, Yoruba, Nok, Aksum, Baru, Kongo, Buguirimi, Benin, Songhoy, Buganda, Ashanti and the Oyo Empire.

Plus, a lot of archeaological evidence suggests that the first Homo-Sapiens originated in Africa.

All good replies, also check out: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=38599

This strikes me as a singularly unconvincing explanation as given. Few heads of state in sub-Saharan African have achieved the level of legimitacy of traditional leaders --indeed what one finds is the ‘secular’ --for lack of a better word at the moment-- leaders striving to take on the trappings of traditional leadership from whatever the strongest supporting ethnic group might be. The exploitation of ethnicity is in fact a quite modern phenomena and frequently as much the creation of the stresses of non-legitimated post-colonial power structures as anything else.

Now there is the issue of the redistributive ethos which when tied to essentially predatory, yet weakly rooted power structures, leads to corruption. Since the state can’t rely on an underlying “nation” --politically motivated ethinic base (rather most are caught between competeting “nations” in the sense given) it has to bribe its way to loyalty.

This is every bit a silly as talking about European culture. There are many diverse cultures in Africa, not one. Over generalization gets us nowwhere, especially when there are distinct historical traditions in various regions.

Rubbish. Some peoples have had divine kingship traditions, others not. This sort of over-generalization verges on falsehood and obscures the real issue, which lies in the weak natures of post-colonialial state and the failure of the political class to institute widely accepted means Also on “tribe” see this link http://www.africapolicy.org/bp/ethnic.htm

The assertion fails when one takes a close look at pre-colonial histories for West Africa, for example, where everything from theocratic Islamic republics to imperial bureacractic regimes, to true divine kingship is found. Even in the later case, it seems that this was not untrammeled power.

The issue lies not in tradition but in “neo-tradition” arising from attempts to digest the alien states into traditional politic norms, themselves partially destroyed during the colonial experience.

Actually Mobutu’s full name was in fact Mobutu Sese Seko, with the christian appelation also used from his baptism. It was not a matter of his renaming himself.

It is no little note that Mobutu both attained and retained power through the shrewd exploitation of Western support “against” a “Communist” threat.

Again, we see the promise of independence flushed away in the combination of the lack of preparation for a modern state by the Belgians --real robber barons in their behaviour-- Cold War rivalries inserting themselves into the region and the artificiality of the geo-political state as Zaire/Congo really forms at least three distinct linguistic-cultural units.

Mobutu’s ‘tribalist’ or ‘traditionalist’ pomp was largely invented as a means of drumming up support by attacking European influence even as he depended on it. Cunning, evil in fact, exploitation of symbols in the service of his own pockets.

That’s Jenne Jeno, a city in the Niger valley, among the earliest urban settlements in sub-Saharan West Africa. I think it begins c. 400bc


We can accept Homo Sapiens origin in Africa as more or less a given fact given the preponderance of archaeological and genetic evidence to date.

In general, because of the culture engrainded in MOST African societies, the reason most heads of state are or turn into despotic leaders unanswerable to the people despite democratic institutions. This is because MOST African societies are totalitarian in nature. Similar to why democracy has failed in Russia: a long history of absolutism.

I’m not saying the colonialism argument is NOT the main reason for Africa being poor. My point is that corruption is ONLY a contributing factor.

Look,I’m getting my info from David Lamb’s book. I don’t make this shit up off the top of my head. Take it up with him. Let’s move on:

Under the Mobutu regime, Zairians were required to “Africanize” their names. Mobutu’s motivation for renaming himself, or going by his “appelation” or whatever you want to call it was to perpetuate his evil dictatorship.

Thank you. You just made my point for me. Mobutu is a textbook example of African tribal traditions as a contributing factor to corrupt African despotism. Mobutu is the most glaring example of this phenomena.

Gee. Sorry about the mispelling.I was hoping that you would be impressed that I am one of the 5% of the American population that knows what continent Jenne-Jeno is in.

Oh boy. You don’t correct people’s grammar at parties, do you?

Is there an echo in here?

Actually it’s Djenne-Jeno.

Back to the broader scope of the “whys and wherefores” Africa is poor:

Has anyone mentioned that the cold war superpowers supported the African nasty-guys just because they were on our side?
Examples are Mobutu and Sekou Toure. To hell with their human rights rankings.

Has anyone mentioned that the big economic powers supported leaders only to protect their economic interests? Examples:
France and Cote d’Ivoire, USA and Kenya.

Has anyone mentioned that European and North American interests supported basically extraction industries which pulled the wealth out of many African countries. And in support to maintaining mining and other natural resource extraction rights such as forrestry, these companies promoted bribery and corruption on a grand scale?

The logical conclusion is that the economic superpowers have had significant influences on Africa’s poverty rates - more so than weather and traditional political systems.
US and Britain in the Sudan. France in Senegal. Belgium in Congo/Zaire. France in CAR, Gabon, Rwanda. USA in Liberia.

Has everyone forgotten the long heartfelt struggle to get major American companies to withdraw their investments in apartheid South Africa?

Why, yes. I believe that those issues have been mentioned. They were not addressed with either your eloquence or your passion, but the subject has been touched on in this thread. :wink:

Actually, I’m in the middle of a book right now which goes into great detail on the proximate and ultimate causes of the worlds different cultures. The book is called Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

In the book, he explains that the sub-saharan region of africa is ill-suited to developing the beginnings of food production because it has very few suitable crops or domesticable animals. His explanations are very well thought out and logical. I recommend this book to those who are interested in why Africa ended up in the situations it is in now.

See the book Guns, Germs and Steel

I just started reading this the other day. So I can’t make any other comments than: remember he is a physiologist and his approach to Yali’s question lays a strong foundation for a non racist slant to why different cultures have, well, developed differently. Looks like an excellent book.

You might notice you’re comparing a continent to one country with a specific history. I entirely reject the vast over-generalization that most African societies are totalitarian in nature. A false assertion on the very face of it. Non-democratic is not totalitarian. Sure, democratic traditions have never found a large place, but that’s true of most of the world. That is not the same as being able to claim the societies are largely charecterized by totalinarianism, which implies the ruler enjoys untrammeled power. As far as my knowledge goes this absolutely not the case.

I’d move on to another source, Lamb’s book does not sound very impressive or very well informed. Perhaps some by
There is also Oliver’s The African experience London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, c1991 or Africa edited by Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara: London : Currey, c1995. The authors are both respected historians of Africa and editors of peer-reviewed journals or you can always try Phillip Curtin (Johns Hopkins Univ., Baltimore) volume African history : from earliest times to independence London : Longman, 1995. Here you’re find opinion grounded in solid research.

No I did not, reread closely. Mobutu’s ‘tribalism’ was largely invented – that is he was “creating” traditions, or exploiting and deforming some aspects of pre-existing traditions. That is the meaning of my phrase “Mobutu’s trivalist or traditionalist pomp was largely invented”. Very little of his actual rule ressembles what is known of traditional rulers from the region. Mobutu siezed on some outward symbols but worked in his own set of rules.

I am, but the name was wrong. I provided the correct name (or as some one has provided, djenne-jeno, although the latter is the French version of Jenne-jeno).
On the issue of extraction industries:

I respectfully disagree. The issue is not with extraction industry per se (which have provided a leg up for other regions) but what one does with the money gained. As assymetrical as the relationship may be, wise investing of capital can pull you ahead. We’ve seen just this, albeit with warts, in East Asia. It did not happen, in large part, in Africa. The reasons for that are not to be found in something inherent in extraction industry but rather the political culture which breeds instability and scares off investment (domestic money flees Africa every bit as much as international capital avoids it.)

Arbitrary, corrupt rule not only is bad for human rights, it sucks the economic vitality out of a nation.

Honestly, I have to add my skepticism to the “artificial border” argument. Doesn’t Europe have a lot of artificial borders?

Consider Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

Sorry, lucwarm, you’re only batting one for three–and that one tends to prove the point made above.

The various helvetic tribes coalesced into the Swiss confederation (despite their language differences) a long time ago. The Netherlands comprises regions that are actually fairly close ethnically, and they, too, came together for mutual support of their own choices.

Belgium is, indeed, an artificial country. Northern Flanders would have fit more naturally with the Netherlands–except that Flanders was the region that Spain was able to control in their attempt to reclaim the low lands for the Catholic Church (and the Hapsburg empire). During the long period of Spanish domination, Catholicism held sway and the Flemings grew distanced from their Dutch kinsmen to the north. Southern Wallony was a French region removed from France after the Napoleanic wars to weaken France. When Flanders and Wallony were given to the Netherlands after the fall of Napolean, the very same sort of ethnic strife occurred among those groups. One significant difference was that the Netherlands was already an established nation with an ethnic identity before having Flanders and Wallony attached to it. When the ethnic and political battles arose, Flanders and Wallony break away from the Netherlands without significant disruption to the Netherlands, its politics, or its culture. (If you think that the Flemings and the Walloons have been getting along famously despite their artificial association, you really need to read Belgian history more closely.)

On the other hand, reading of the efforts to bring Burgundy, Provence, Normandy, or Brittany into “France” is a tale of hundreds of years of warfare. The same can be seen in the formation of the “United Kingdom” which experienced wars, civil wars, and rebellions of one form or another throughout the entire thousand years from the first “union” of Wales and England through the nineteenth century.

We view European history as simply “those wars” that happened “back then,” but we miss the point that, in Africa, the creation of all the artificial countries occurred in fewer than 100 years–and all were imposed from the outside.

First, what Collounsbury, kiffa, and tomndebb said.

Luc, I’m not sure what you are getting at with the comparison to Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have existed as recognizable political/cultural entities for 100s of years. Belgium and Switzerland do encompass more than one language group, but 2 or 3 national languages is a big difference from the 100s that can be found within a state such as South Africa (where incidentally, the two European groups don’t exactly get along). The countries you mention have a shared history of European culture - Christianity, guns, the printing press, etc. all arrived there at about the same time. But the formation of modern European nation-states and borders was hardly a painless process - a fun game is to take a place such as Trieste, Alsace-Lorraine, Bratislava, or Uzgorod and count how many different countries it has belonged to just since 1900.

The most recent European example would be Yugoslavia - an artificial cohort of completely different ethnic and religous groups that resumed 1000-year-old conflicts the second the force that held them reluctantly together disappeared.

Obviously African countries aren’t the first to bring together different ethnic groups under one roof, but the last 40 years have been filled with internal strife and the violent legacies of colonialism and the cold war - I imagine (and hope) that things will have settled down a great deal 50 or 100 years from now.

Most African boundaries were drawn by Europeans saying “Well, England needs access to that part of the Zambezi river, so we’ll draw it here.” “Okay, we’ll give you that in return for this mountain range.” This has come up in some recent threads:

Is Africa headed for disaster?

Let’s recolonize Africa

As for the OP, I don’t know why Africa is poor. Slavery, climate, colonialism, government, climate, cold war, lack of infrastructure development, plantation/extraction economies, poor management of national resources - lots of factors that span the continent. Also, not EVERYONE in Africa is poor. Also, I think if you looked at the world’s population as a whole, people who enjoy a Western standard of living would form a small minority.


OK then. Give me the percentage of democratic countries in Africa vs. South America vs. Asia vs. North America vs. Europe. I will bet my left nut Africa loses hands down.

I’d move on to another source, Lamb’s book does not sound very impressive or very well informed. **

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what others have said about the book.

Click here:



Thank you. You just made my point for me. Mobutu is a textbook example of African tribal traditions as a contributing factor to corrupt African despotism. Mobutu is the most glaring example of this phenomena.


No I did not, reread closely. Mobutu’s ‘tribalism’ was largely invented – that is he was “creating” traditions, or exploiting and deforming some aspects of pre-existing traditions. That is the meaning of my phrase “Mobutu’s trivalist or traditionalist pomp was largely invented”. Very little of his actual rule ressembles what is known of traditional rulers from the region. Mobutu siezed on some outward symbols but worked in his own set of rules.**

I respectfully disagree. Mobutu took trappings of traditional African tribalism and used them to his benefit, similar to Hilter taking trappings of Teutonic mysticism and creating the Nazi movement.

Africa (and parts of Latin America, South East Asia…and evn the United States) are poor because the population is increasing faster than economic output.

A lot of the developing world is caught between a demographic rock and an economic hard place. These countries are the beneficiaries of 20th century medical advances that have reduced death rates. However, they have not made the cultural changes necessary to reduce birth-rate and, hence, population growth.

Now, the economies of most African nations have grown since the 1960’s - creating more wealth for the country. Now, the population has increased more than the wealth so, in aggregate, the population has become poorer.

There was something similar in the U.S. and Europe in the mid- to late-19th Century. Advanced in medicine reduced the death-rates and the population exploded faster than economic growth. Think about the discriptions of 19th Century England (e.g Dickens).

The only way to eliminate poverty in Africa is to get the population growth under control. Once the economy grows faster than the population, the people in Africa will gradually become more and more affluent.

Hal, where does the AIDS epidemic and the resulting huge losses of population and productivity fit into your argument? By your reasoning, AIDS will help Africa by decreasing population to a manageable level. I disagree.

Also, Africa is a big place - not all of it is overpopulated, and not all of the economies are interrelated - where does population need to decrease in order?

Hasn’t the population of Europe and the U.S. increased exponentially since the 19th century? Economic growth has increased as well, but not as a direct result of population control measures.

Isn’t the answer to increase economic growth rather than focus on population issues? (I do agree that better-educated and wealthier families have fewer children - but is that a cause or an effect?)

I’m not dismissing your points - they are bleedingly obvious - it just seems like a chicken-and-egg scenario to me. Any stats you could provide on population growth relative to economic output would be appreciated.