Some Thoughts on Poverty in Africa

A fellow student in one of my classes wondered about poverty in Africa and “our” responsibility:

Several potentially controversial questions weigh on my mind:

  • How much obligation do former empires have to continue to provide financial aid to Africa? What motivates them to intervene? Is it the idea of “You broke it, you bought it?” Is it the conspiratorial motive that they are merely exercising control under the guise of charity? Is it because a developed Africa provides indirect benefits to everyone? Or is it truly pure benevolence?
  • Does international intervention help or hinder African political/economic independence and self-sufficiency?
  • Much of North, East, and Central Africa is in a state of unrest, fragility, or outright anarchy.  What will it take for order to be restored?  Can local governments work from the bottom to top to establish stable communities that eventually lead to stable nations? Or have cities and centralized government structures usurped too many resources for this to be possible?

These are tough questions. At its heart, what my colleague is asking is why some nations are poorer than others and what should be done. Scholars have been trying to figure out the answer since at least the time of Adam Smith.

The first question presupposes that “we broke it” and is usually mentioned with the corollary that “our growth is a result of colonial exploitation.” This is more complex than it seems, at least if we are talking about economic growth. The counterfactual is somewhat elusive. Some things to consider:

Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has argued that the slave trade and colonialism cannot account for the magnitude of Western growth since industrialization. This paper by Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (AJR) has been very influential in development economics. It argues that settler mortality during colonization led to extractive institutions in cases where Europeans were more likely to die, and more robust and supportive institutions where they could settle down and live permanently. Indeed, some former colonies are doing quite well. The United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Africa are a few examples. Some Africa countries are also doing well over the past decade. Again, AJR would argue that this is because of institutions as they did in the their paper on BotswanaEven during colonization wages in Africa were variant and in some cases relatively high. Jared Diamond argues Africa’s dire situation is largely geographic. This paper points to poor design of political boundaries by Western colonizers as a major source of violence. Ethnolinquistic fragmentation has also been suggested as a major disruption.

There is also the matter that the slave trade from Africa to the Middle East predated by several centuries colonization by the West and that many Africans were themselves complicit in exporting slaves during colonization and all too happy to accept Western help if it meant their tribe gained dominance. This is in no way meant to excuse the horrific acts of Western colonization, which are disgusting beyond measure. However, it’s very hard to know the growth path of African (and other) countries absent colonial experiences. Perhaps some would be worse off and others better. Again, I am speaking mainly from a political and economic point of view.

To provide aid we also have to know what we are doing. William Easterly wrote an entire book arguing that the World Bank’s policies have mostly proved fruitless (i.e. we don’t know what we’re doing). (Jeffery Sachs responded). Recently, randomized controlled trials have become the evaluation method of choice. Todd Moss claims it is silly to talk about contingent loans from the IMF and World Bank since these institutions rarely held recipient countries liable for not following their recommendations (and in most cases countries did not). Nigerian-American Teju Cole rails against what he terms The White Savior Industrial Complex. And Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina instructs us on how to write (and think) about Africa more generally.

I could say much more and many people have.


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