Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why Africa?

I have recently begun reading the book Heart of Darkness by Josef Conrad. It is a book about colonialism in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. I also recommend the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, another great book on a similar topic.

So why is Africa so poor?

Well, there are many reasons and I certainly do not know them all, but here is a simple and general economic and historical explanation:

Africa was once the heart of civilization. The empires of Egypt, Greece, and Rome all contributed to a wealthy North Africa. Egypt was a bread-basket in particular and the Mediterranean Sea was the heart of the trade between the East and the West. However, after the fall of the Roman empire things began to get worse, but the economic problem Africa faced was already deeply rooted.

A very large percentage of Africans worked in the agricultural sector in order to feed its people, as did much of civilization at the time. However, Africa in general is not very crop friendly. Aside from the fertile Nile River valley, Africa is covered by two large deserts one in the north and one in the south, has a massive jungle in the middle, and rocky highlands scattered about. In other words, it wasn't very conducive to increased agricultural production as Europe was or even America was.

This contributed to Africa's tribal makeup. Large cities and countries couldn't be developed because the tribes could not grow enough food to sustain a large population. Tribes were small and dedicated mostly to feeding its people. Having most of its people locked into doing agriculture, African tribes were unable to develop any kind of industrial occupations or even merchant occupations.

None of this mattered so much until the Enlightenment and the growth of European power. Europe suddenly became obsessed with wealth and power. It's agriculture production allowed workers to develop other trades and eventually the Feudal system that was somewhat similar to the African tribal system gave way to capitalism and huge urban centers. Nations scrambled for economic and military power and eventually took their battles to America and Africa.

The era of colonization began and exacerbated the situation in Africa. Both America and Africa were colonized, but their situations were completely different. In America, things ended so much better (although it is easy to forget how the natives were enslaved, killed, and driven out of their lands just as the Africans were). So what happened?

America was populated with Europeans looking for religious freedom and for economic opportunity. Africa was depopulated by the slave tribe and increased warfare. America was a land of huge potential growth because of its wealth of natural resources but also because of its more arable land. It drew in more resources, including African slaves and investment capital from Europeans, and was able to spur growth that eventually enabled its independence, with a lot of help from France of course.

Africa remained hopeless. Europeans killed, enslaved, and tortured the Africans. Their military technology was far superior and in order to increase the number of slaves without the casualties of warfare and disease they traded weapons to African tribes to kill and enslave each other. Now Africa was being depopulated by the slave trade, disease from Europeans, warfare with Europeans, and warfare with itself. Europeans took whatever Africa had of value…the gold from west Africa, the rubber from central Africa, and the ivory from east and south Africa. The most arable land in Africa (in the south and in Egypt) was taken first by the Dutch and then the British. Africans didn’t own anything.

And despite the end of colonization things haven’t changed much. A still very large proportion of Africans work for their subsistence in agriculture(If you go here you will see each country’s labor force makeup and you can see for yourself the strong tie between % of labor force in agriculture and poverty levels). There is little industry to speak of. Those of European descent still own most of the wealth. Much of Africa’s economy is shipping its valuable natural resources to industrialized nations to be made into household products that we buy. Africans still fight themselves with weapons supplied by us, the developed nations, in trade for their valuable resources.

There is also the factor that wealth leads to wealth, that is, the more money I have, the more I can create with it. Initial growth led to even more growth which led to even more growth and you get the picture. This sort of path dependence is mostly historical accident and did not necessarily need to be so. All the wealth of Africa was and is taken away by us.

This is also a black mark for capitalism and is why unbridled capitalism can be and is almost always evil. Exploitation occurs whenever possible, because agents act in their self-interest and are justified in doing so because of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ excuse. The invisible hand may be efficient with lots of competition, but Africa was never even given a chance to compete. It got none of the pie. It lost before the game began all because its people relied heavily on subsistence agriculture and Europeans couldn’t get enough and now its people suffer because of it.

The truth is, capitalism is useless if its people aren’t virtuous. Social Justice requires that we act always for the common good. Capitalism can be the system to get us there, but not if you don’t do your part. Don’t think “I gotta get mine.” Instead look at your neighbor and think, “how can I help him?”

Africa really needs it.

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