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The 'Facts' of African Poverty
Ghana's Golden Anniversary gives occasion to reflect on roots of underdevelopment
Bright B. Simons (baronsimon)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-16 12:51 (KST)   
Ghana celebrated the 50th Anniversary of its independence from Great Britain last week. The 20 million dollar price-tagged event naturally aroused mixed responses from observers within the country and abroad. One question that kept popping up was: is it worth it? You may ask which, the anniversary celebration or independence itself? Well, as it happens, both.

Almost every pundit worth her salt felt obliged to raise again that tired comparison between Ghana and Malaysia. The two countries obtained independence around the same time but have since diverged so widely in their development paths that there seems to be nothing common to their national experiences. There are sophisticated analyses of this mystery, and invariably as with all belabored points, some very crude ones too. You could actually draw a similar analogy between Canada and Singapore, by saying that because the former obtained independence so much earlier its achievements pale in comparison with the latter. The same can be said with regards to Egypt and Namibia, Brazil and Brunei, or indeed Liberia and Ghana. Liberia of course had its "independence" a hundred years prior to Ghana, but is today at least a generation behind in development terms.

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The idea is not to indulge in cynical hair-splitting; it is a simple plea for some sophistication in the way these kinds of issues are addressed. They are complex and often the product of specifiable sets of circumstances, and they deserve serious, not glib, examination.

But when you have supposedly well-informed commentators like Niall Fergusson writing scornful screed in the Daily Telegraph in clear contempt of serious debate, the suspicion grows that once again no one is taking Africa very seriously. The least you will expect is for someone of Fergusson's apparent stature to at least get basic facts right, but here he was claiming that a government that hasn't been in power for seven years was still at the helm of affairs in Ghana. He was trying to drive home a point about bad governance, and the reference, presumably, was to indicate the disgraceful longevity of the power-usurping elite in Africa. But did he have to show an index finger to the facts to get his way?

This article will briefly attempt to set the debate about African "underdevelopment" on some footing of factual integrity. The immediate trigger is Ghana's anniversary, but as that country's first president foresaw, "the independence of Ghana is meaningless until it is linked with the total liberation of Africa." As the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence from the main colonial powers, it exerted considerable psychological influence over the rest. But the impact of its feat must have gone beyond the psychic to entail pacesetting and standard-bearing. After all, sub-Saharan countries while multifarious and incredibly diverse, share at least an identical orientation towards the global system. Ghana's story is thus, to a large extent, Africa's story.

To make sense of that story, to relate it to the concrete day-to-day struggles of Africa, we must dispel some common misrepresentations of otherwise important elements in the evolutionary narrative of Africa's underdevelopment. But first it is necessary to underline the point that what is under discussion is economic underdevelopment. No doubt anthropologists and ethnographers of various disciplines will question any general thesis of underdevelopment that assumed that the concept is unproblematic. To be perfectly clear, it must be emphasized that this article concerns "conventional underdevelopment," such as can be captured by conventional instruments such as GDP, GNI, Literacy Rate, Life Expectancy and the various Human Development Indices.

Colonialism and Slavery

Slavery is a sensitive subject for all of us Africans, and rightly so. Africans were the victims of the latest significant episode of mass enslavement in world history. The appalling effects of slavery in all spheres of collective human existence can be discussed on its own merits, and should be. That it is still going on in Africa in places like Mauritania confirms its ongoing topical relevance.

Confusion, however, arises when the twin horrors are conflated with economic underdevelopment.

It is instructive that the word "slave" as we all know derives from "Slav", a collective noun for the people who currently inhabit most parts of Eastern Europe, Russia and the Balkans. Finding themselves trapped between an expanding Muslim Caliphate and a resisting Christendom, millions of Slavs were trafficked all over North Africa, Western Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as Asia Minor. The Ottoman Empire, which inherited the Caliphate, continued to trade in Slavs for commercial and recreational purposes well into the 18th Century.

Plagued by Tartars, Turkic warriors, European invaders and assorted other slave drivers, the Slavs in various dynastic guises strove to resist. To look at the main protagonists in the Slavic slavery episode today, it can hardly be said that Slavonic economic development, whether as a failure or a success, shows any indelible imprint of the Slavs' past enslavement. Nor is there any evidence that Turkey, inheritor of the Ottoman crown, has maintained any geo-economic stranglehold over Slavic Eastern Europe. Former "master-kingdoms" like Egypt and former "slave-kingdoms" like Georgia do not by their subsequent experience lend any weight to the notion that slavery can account in any way for economic under-development.

A similar reservation should be raised about the connection between colonization and underdevelopment. To argue that Spain bears indelible scars of Arab colonialism on its economic experience will require solid evidence; why do we accept less for Africa? The Koreans rightly bristle at Japanese colonialism; the Vietnamese still resent Thailand's past colonial arrogance; and there are still some Finns who wont forgive the Russians for the way the latter once ruled their country; but, while the point is true that lasting political realities are created by colonialism, no credible evidence has been adduced to prove that colonialism imparts lasting courses to economies.

Ethiopia, which was never colonized, revels in the antiquity of its cultural institutions; but it certainly is not wealthier than Botswana which was; indeed, the contrary is true. Thailand and Turkey which were colonizers and never colonies are not today wealthier than Brunei and Taiwan, who both were. By the time the Portuguese left Macau, the latter was probably wealthier than the former. We will need to be more cautious when assigning causes of contemporary trends in Africa to historical incidents.

Bad Governance

It is often, mysteriously, forgotten that it is barely three decades ago that the last successful coup was staged in what is now known as the European Union. In 1974, when this coup occurred in Portugal, the country had been in the iron grips of a military junta since 1910. Greece likewise saw its own military regime overthrown in the same year. From 1967 to 1974, the country had been ruled like a fiefdom by a cabal of mid-ranking officers known as "the colonels." Fast forward to 2006: both Greece and Portugal are straining to keep out economic migrants from Africa.

In 1993 when Kim Yong-Sam was elected President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), the country had endured 32 years of military rule. Yet during this period, per capita income in South Korea rose to more than US$5,500 from less than $100 in 1962. India, which has never experienced a military coup d'etat, had a GDP of $300 at the end of the same time-frame, barely a nudge from the immediate post-independence situation.

If military interventionism can indeed suffice as casual synonym for "authoritarian rule," how is one to explain Singapore, then? The country is a one-party state in all but name. A sycophantic media class, a submissive judiciary and a paternalistic bureaucracy that regulates the activities of citizens to an almost robotic predictability can hardly be conceived as features of a liberal democracy. Indeed, in the mid-nineties the country prescribed a jail term of up to a year for people caught smuggling chewing gum into the country (the law was only revised in 2004 under pressure from American trade interests).

Despite the foregoing, what does the economic dial read? The country has foreign currency reserves greater than that of the entire Sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa. Its GDP is greater than that of all West African countries combined, though its population is less than 5 percent that of Nigeria's.

But Singapore's rulers are fluffy softies when compared with the heavyweights in Beijing. China executes more people than the rest of the world combined. Information flow in and out of the country is tightly controlled. A firewall encircles the Internet network within mainland China's territorial boundaries. Should we call this "bad governance"? Probably. But is it slowing down the 10 percent annual growth in economic output?

What about the 60,000 falsifications of provincial government data reported by the Chinese Government's own State Statistical Bureau in 2001? What about the intellectual property regime that allowed a ring of 50 Chinese companies to flood the market with counterfeits of the Japanese conglomerate NEC's products, after the firm's entire IP identity had been stolen? Surely this calls into question the competence of economic governance in China?

Has it stopped record numbers of foreign ventures, like the 35,000 that was launched in 2004 alone, setting up shop in China?

Malaysia, that oft-cited comparison to Africa states, provides an almost equally fascinating study in paradoxes. Still a de facto one-party state, this country saw during the two-decade rule of Mahathir bin Mohamad significant curtailments of rights, much crony capitalism and several persecutions of dissidents. Beginning in 1988, Mahathir began dismissing judges at will and suppressing all hints of internal democracy within the ruling elite. He even engineered a 24-year jail sentence for a potential successor. Yet Malaysia still recorded a surge of growth of astounding proportions during most of this era. Contrast this with the two-decade rule of Jerry Rawlings. Ghana's per capita income remained at immediate post-independence levels while Malaysia's rose about ten-fold.

Even corruption -- abominable, callous and worthy of the strongest condemnation as it is -- reveals paradoxes when viewed simplistically. In Africa itself the link between serious corruption and abject economic backwardness tends to blur out of focus when looked at without sufficient context. Paul Biya's Cameroon is ahead in per capita income terms of relatively clean countries such as Burkina Faso and Tanzania. India's 8 percent growth has come about even as corruption, by many accounts, continues to mount. In fact, a casual glance over the widely cited Transparency International annual Corruption Perception Indices reveals a haphazard juxtaposition of countries of highly divergent economic situations banded together on equivalent ranks. Fast-growing Vietnam shares a place with tottering Zimbabwe, enterprising Russia commingles with Niger, and "socialist" oil giant Venezuela is forced into cohabitation with Burundi.

Once more, we must accept the reality that in underdevelopment we are faced with a complex phenomenon that defies glib analysis.


Of all the myths about Africa's predicament none is more remarkable than the concept of an Africa poor in the midst of abundance. The contention whether Africa is poor because it is too rich could easily be resolved by an appeal to the objective data, yet is allowed to persist.

Agricultural resources

Most of Africa is actually desert. The Sahara straddles the northwest while the Kalahari holds sway over the southeast. The luxurious rainforest image is a delusion fostered by the Congo basin and its offshoots in Eastern and Western Africa. Rainfall patterns are average-to-low by world standards, but underground water supplies -- often more amenable to control -- are abysmally inadequate. The soils are amongst the poorest in the world, and that is speaking of the romanticized tropical heartland and not of the arid Sahel or southern grasslands. The rainforest soils are poor because they are less suited to intensive arable farming as they are to sustaining long-term biodiversity. The amount of empirical research that clarify this reality are too numerous to list here. Interested readers should contact the author for further reading.

Mineral resources

Take a critical look at the table below.

It is immediately clear from the table that whilst Africa has a good proportion of some commodities, it has fewer of those that are most conducive to industrial growth (see right-hand side of table). Consider also the lower portion of the table. The point that Africa has relatively modest amounts of mineral wealth is further reinforced by the skewed distribution in favor of South Africa (with about 7 percent of the continent's population): much of Africa is no more mineral-wealthy than most other parts of the world. The imbalance would have been bleaker still had we listed Congo's share of various resources. There is in fact a scarcity of the minerals that are most important to the industrializing efforts of countries, those minerals that serve as inputs for large-scale industrialization.

So what is The Point?

Am I then arguing that slavery & corruption, bad governance and over-endowment have played no part in Africa's underdevelopment? That all the commentary that has been generated to that effect in this area is plain wrong?

I am saying nothing of the kind. My intention is to draw to readers' attention that often a great many of the arguments that employ these various notions do so without a sufficiently broad appreciation of the relevant facts. They then proceed to make prescriptions for Africa that end up compounding rather than solving the problem. In particular, the desire is to highlight the absurdity of the "African exceptionalism" standpoint. It was easy to demonstrate even in this brief outline that many of the concepts that are often applied to Africa break down when viewed in a broader context. The perennial failure of Western do-gooders and all-knowing African centralist planners in a large part owes to this narrow way of looking at Africa.

The economic development problems that face Africa are merely localized challenges with a universal theme. Bad governance, historical handicaps, and how to sustainably manage national resources are global challenges. Every region of the world that has so far done better than Africa in tackling these constraints did so through "entrepreneurship" and a "tendency towards economic liberalization" as a direct result of that same entrepreneurship, bar none.

India's economic boom is due to private entrepreneurship, despite public corruption. Singapore's success is due to state entrepreneurship, despite private strictures. And the trend in both India and Singapore is the gradual loosening of restrictions as entrepreneurship burst asunder the dominance of old elites. We see this in the rise of the Hua-Ren (Chinese Diaspora) at the expense of the Mandarin classes, and in the R&D miracle in Scandinavia that Jeffrey Sachs wrongly attributes to the welfare state.

The ideal situation is of course that both the state and individuals will be as entrepreneurial as possible. But the worst situation will be for entrepreneurship to be lacking on both fronts. That is what has happened in Africa. Obviously, treating the genesis of the current situation where almost every facet of private, civil and public life seems to militate against entrepreneurship requires another article of similar length. The immediate priority was to raise doubts about the bulk of the conventional conceptions of African underdevelopment and cast "entrepreneurship" as the dominant issue deserving of attention. This should be done even as Africa lovers all over the world continue to fight against bad governance, corruption and all the other contributory factors that exacerbate and amplify the problem.

But let there be no delusions about the facts of fundamental causes.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bright B. Simons

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