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Why is Africa poor?

Nicholas Kristof poses a question in the NYT:
Why is Africa poor?

Is it a legacy of colonial exploitation? Tropical diseases and parasites? Or is it that local mammals, like the zebra and the African elephant, were difficult to domesticate and harness in agriculture?

There’s truth in each of these explanations. But a visit to Zimbabwe highlights perhaps the main reason: bad governance. The tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt rule of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has turned one of Africa’s most advanced countries into a shambles.
Later he details the trials of a parentless family doing the best they can, it's really quite moving. Click through and see here for a slideshow. It's a reminder of how nice I have it here in South Africa.

But I'd like to address his main point, which he goes into in more detail at his blog:
Clearly colonialism — and the disastrous colonial borders left behind — have been a problem. Some people think colonialism is the central problem, and it’s certainly true that the lack of investment in human capital, the way roads and railways were just built from the interior to the coasts, the way certain ethnic groups were favored — all these left huge problems behind. But then again look at those countries that were not colonized. Thailand wasn’t colonized, and it’s no better off than Malaysia or Singapore next door. Liberia wasn’t formally colonized, although the immigration of former American slaves and the Firestone plantations were reminiscent of colonialism, and it’s no better off than Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone next door. Ethiopia was only lightly colonized, and it didn’t obviously benefit either from the limited colonial imprint. More broadly, Portugal barely touched areas like the interior of Mozambique, and yet they are no better off than French colonies that underwent a huge French imprint. Indeed, French colonies arguably benefited from the strong legacy of a unifying French language and the ties among Francophone Africa, not least the CFA franc.

Another theory that I allude to is Jared Diamond’s belief that Africa (and Australia) were harmed by the lack of large mammals that could be domesticated and then harnessed in agriculture. It certainly was a huge advantage for Asia and Europe that a livestock culture arose there (along with immunity to disease). But I think Diamond may overdo the intractability of African mammals. Years ago when I read his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I was impressed by his arguments about how zebras were untrainable — and then a few days later took my son to the circus, where zebras performed amazing tricks in the center ring. I’ve been skeptical ever since. And while Asian elephants probably are more docile than African elephants, on this trip I spoke to Zimbabwean elephant trainers who insisted that it is easier to train African elephants than Indian elephants.

In any case, it is clear that African countries can register enormous economic growth when they are well-governed. Botswana is a great example of that. Sure, Botswana is helped by its diamonds, but diamonds haven’t done anything for Congo. The difference is that Botswana since independence has had a series of wise, honest rulers, and partly as a result no conflict. What distinguishes the fastest-growing economies in Africa, also including Rwanda, is simply their good governance. And what distinguishes the worst-performing countries tends to be a combination of bad governance and (often related) incessant conflict.
I think Kristof is right in that what distinguishes a decently-run country like Botswana from a basketcase like Zimbabwe is the quality of governance. But the real question is why does Botswana have a well-functioning government while Zimbabwe does not?

Quick aside: Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel seems to answer a different question. My impression from reading the book (which could be wrong as I don't have a copy to consult here) is that Diamond basically took for granted that colonialism is at the root of most of Africa's problems, and he was addressing the question of why Europeans were able to trample all over Africans (and everyone else). Kristof's point about zebras and elephants is also wide of the mark--Diamond was talking about domestication, which is very different from training, and Diamond's thesis covers much more than mammals in any case.

It's true that there are a lot of countries that were never colonies that are also in ruins. But there are a lot of ways to foul up a country (see here for example). A better metric would be to look at ex-colonies that are doing well. (Let's count relatively recent colonies, as practically everywhere was a colony at some point.) The only ones I can think that are first-rank powers are Canada and Australia, and perhaps South Korea. It's telling that there is practically no native population left in Canada or Australia. In any case, I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of recent ex-colonies are in sad shape.

It's true that the post-colonial borders throughout Africa and elsewhere are basically insane, and the ethnic tensions left behind from the colonial favoritism often had horrific results. But the big one that Kristof is missing is institutions. Colonial powers set up an administration to run a colony, and when they were inevitably driven out they carved out most of that governing apparatus with them. New countries were left with shaky institutions associated with the old regime, few career civil servants and bureaucrats, and fewer politicians with governing experience. What's more, the general population had usually been denied access to even basic education and training. Is it any wonder that most of them collapsed in graft and military coups? We can see from the experience of Zimbabwe that once a terrible regime is ensconced, a country can far very fall indeed, and its climb back to decent shape will probably be long and hard (though Rwanda is doing remarkably well).

I'm no expert on Botswana, but as far as I can tell they just got lucky with their first President Seretse Khama. He was one of those rare leaders (like the even more adroit King Hussein) with a natural sense for small-power diplomacy and resource management (between 1966 and 1980 Botswana had the highest growth rate in the world). Now institutions are firmly in place that give Botswana a solid footing, even for dealing with their immense AIDS problem.

Reading Daniel Larison gives me more respect for the paleoconservative position in international affairs. He linked to this article in World Affairs Journal the other day:
On the contrary, if the history of the past century showed anything, it was that clear legal norms, and the securing of international stability more generally, also serve the cause of human welfare. Let alone the fact that it is much easier to destroy institutions than to build them. Liberalism’s characteristic indifference to institutions, both domestic and international, has thus been called into question. In short, the ending of the era of humanitarian interventionism may come to be seen as a sign of the waning of Western power, and mourned as consigning more of the world’s peoples to the mercies of the tyrants who rule them. But it is possible to view it more positively, as the belated emergence of a new maturity in international relations.
Now I'm not going to say that international intervention to prevent something like the Rwandan Genocide is wrong. But that article does cut a bit close to the bone. Institutions are hard to build and easy to destroy, and a relatively short war or dictatorship can break a country down in ways that take perhaps hundreds of years to undo.


  1. Yes! I find Kristoff to be the most arrogant and provocative "I'm-smarter-than-the-average-bear" journalist. Just because he can find an example for his case and went to this third-world country one time (okay--he went to a bunch, a bunch of times...) doesn't make his argument effective, or productive. And rhetorically I find that he uses the ideal of balance disingenuously to push whatever the latest flavor is, ala Fox News (we can all find evidence to make any argument we want, but why choose to blame Africa's problems on Zimbabwe?). But, I guess that's why he's known for opinions rather than news, and I should probably just feel grateful he remains mostly on the opinion pages...
    You really don't want to know what I think of Taibi, though I've let Rolling Stone know more than once... :P
    I'm not so sure about institutions and laws. The Apartheid government sure did look out for the people of South Africa, or didn't they? What they had was institutions and effective governance. Same could be said about the Nazis. And what about the norm of colonialism, and the norm of African countries getting loans from rich countries? I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you--how awesome everyone thinks Apartheid was (at least all the blacks I know here...) has just been on my mind a lot lately, and this whole scientific progress notion. :P

  2. Meh, I find it hard to be too mad at Kristof. He's kind of a bumbling doofus, but I feel like his heart is mostly in the right place, and his internationalism is certainly quite rare on any US opinion page. At least he's getting the word out to Americans that Zimbabwe is a country somewhere outside the lower 48.

    You should let fly about Taibbi! He does some ridiculous stuff, but the man has coined some notable phrases (Goldman Sachs as "a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentless jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money"), and he does takedowns like no one else. What's your beef?

    The point I was making about institutions is that solid domestic institutions are usually a desirable good in and of themselves. Of course one can come up with examples where very well-organized countries committed horrible atrocities (*cough*godwin*cough*)--accurate train schedules does not a utopia make--but I was saying more that the relative cost of changing those institutions, especially from outside, must be weighed against the chaos that might ensue, and this is something liberal internationalists like George Packer often disregard. I find myself more and more sympathetic towards the "amoral" realpolitik of Kennan or Acheson.

    Clearly colonialism and Apartheid were untenable norms, and I'm not saying people should do nothing to right injustice throughout the world. In fact, I think the international response to Apartheid of sanctions and divestment was perfect--as compared to going in guns blazing like in Iraq. The fact that South Africa managed to keep most of its institutions basically intact throughout the 1994 era has to have something to do with its relatively good position compared to the rest of Africa.

  3. haha! Yeah, what I don't like about Taibbi is his nastiness. Basically I think he's like a crude, obnoxious comedian, only he isn't that funny because he thinks he's saying something intelligent, but mostly he does not manage to figure out anything that hasn't been on the front page of every newspaper for the last month, and I find his wit over the line. I think he mentioned something about Obama or Edwards or someone dragging their oozing pussy across the floor at some point in the Rolling Stone. I don't think it's tenable to act morally self-righteous and judgmental (which I find him to generally be) and to be an absurd asshole simultaneously. Certainly female columnists can't say cruel and vulgar things referencing male genitalia and stay hip and be published (so that makes me against the Rolling Stone, as well, hehe). And he doesn't point anything out that anyone who isn't college educated wouldn't already know or couldn't figure out on their own.
    Good stuff, I'll think more about the actual stuff we've been discussing, try and get back to you! :)

  4. This article in national geographic by jared diamond argues that the constant human presence on the continent allowed for development of disease, evolution of big animals to remain, geographically isolated areas did not allow for domestication of ag crops, which makes its history unique.


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