History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Many African countries are currently in the bottom parts of socioeconomic rankings like GDP per capita, life expectancy, literacy, HDI, etc. Some of them possess a decent amount of natural resources and relatively low population burden, so this is disappointing.

Are there historical reasons for this to have happened? And yes, I know there are poor countries everywhere, but there seems to be an unusually high concentration of them especially in the Sub-Saharan region. And before colonization is brought up as a factor, let me remind you the United States is a former British colony.

share|improve this question
This question more or less asks if it is on topic. IMO it is not. :-) – Lennart Regebro Oct 31 '11 at 7:25
Might be better to move this to economics.SE – apoorv020 Oct 31 '11 at 11:46
It is a big leap to think that USA and various african countries were colonies in the same sense. After all, how rich are the Native Americans in USA? Are they the economic powerhorse of the USA? Or are they pushed to the edges of society with poor health, lots of crime and drug problems? That should tell you what happens when a country is colonized. – Rory Nov 3 '11 at 15:35
This question might be a better fit on the new politics.se! – Affable Geek Jan 31 '13 at 17:48
If British colonialism was a factor, it was a positive one. I believe former British colonies have done better in Africa than those of the French or Portuguese. – user2590 Aug 3 '13 at 7:39
up vote 24 down vote accepted

For a country to be economically prosperous you need a couple of things:

  1. You need the rule of law in the economy. A country where people can steal, cheat or break contracts as they wish makes it very difficult to conduct business.

  2. You need ownership rights. If you do not own the land, factory or house that you are using to make money, you will not invest in it as the investment is likely to be taken away from you.

  3. You need a high life expectancy, and you need inheritances. If you are likely to die soon, you won't try to build a business long term. Instead you will try to steal others money, since making your own fortune will take too long. Similarly you will not try to amass a fortune if you can't pass it on to your offspring.

Some things that therefore prevent prosperity are wars, socialism and diseases. Africa has been quite uniquely ravaged by all three during the 20th century. During the 18th and especially 19th century it was ravaged by the western powers who of course based their whole interest there in stealing.[1]

It is notable that natural resources do not figure in the list. In fact, having plenty of natural resources are often a curse, as it will attract people who aren't interested in keeping 1, 2 and 3 alive and well. The natural resources in Africa are sometimes a cause for war, and almost always a cause for large-scale corruption and a practical collapse of the rule of law.


[1] Kevin Shillington, History of Africa. New York: Macmillian Publishers Limited, 2005 or for that matter any history book about colonization.

share|improve this answer
@LennartRegebro: Maybe we can agree to disagree. But saying that the Soviet Union was not successful in ANYTHING is incorrect. It was one of the most powerful countries in the world. And that was not deemed to randomness. Then we can go to the example of China but that is another subject. History is written by the victors but that doesn't mean that the defeated had no merits of their own. Your assessment is rather unfair. It's not my job to try to make others impartial and objective but this effort ends here. :-) – Joze Nov 10 '11 at 12:44
@Joze: I never said that they were not successful in anything. I said that socialism (in the sense of not having ownership) is working against wealth. China is an excellent example of this. This is not a controversial issue. Possibly economics.SE can enlighten you, or maybe a chat session. But teaching you basic economics in a comment field isn't likly to work. – Lennart Regebro Nov 10 '11 at 16:21
@Joze - did you actually live in USSR? I did. My parents/grandparents did. All 3 generations are right now laughing aprorously at how brainwashed you are. Soviet Union was only successful in one thing - cheap weapons production. Sputnik was an outgrouth of a weapons program. And they stole a large chunk of that technology from Germans (same as USA did). And most importantly, having a hunk of iron in oribit doesn't make a nation rich. By itself it's merely useless sunk cost. If you look at quality of life or per-capita income/wealth, USSR was VERY VERY poor. – DVK Nov 20 '11 at 14:29
@quant_dev - (1) I wasn't able to find total population figures, but 7 million across 150-200 years isn't possibly THAT big of a figure. (hell, even including 18 million for Arab slavery which I'm sure you didn't include in your negative effects since you can't blame Europeans for that). (2) Domination of Europeans over Africa has zero to do with slavery, since most slaves were caught and sold by Arabs; and colonial period in Africa was AFTER slave trade. The question was explicitly about effect of slavery, not generic white guilt. – DVK Nov 21 '11 at 18:19
I would strongly disagree there. Whilst Scandinavia is more social-democrat than socialist, it's probably the best examples in Europe of socialism without that being a cypher for Leninism. That "socialism doesn't work" is very much ideology, not fact. That Leninist policies claiming to be socialist (regarded by the West as communist) don't work has indeed been proven by the Bolshevik experiment last century, but there are plenty of socialist policies that are still both definitely popular and that work -- better than neoliberal capitalism by some estimations. But this is not the place :o) – Owen Blacker Feb 22 '12 at 0:10

An interesting analysis on this question was brought up by Jared Diamond author of "Guns, Germs and Steel" and I believe it is a more accurate answer to the question than that offered by Lennart Regebro (no offense intended to that author!). While Regebro is certainly true in explaining major factors to the continuation of many African nations relative poverty, it ignores the root cause of the initial wealth in-balance between Europe and the U.S. in contrast to many African nations. According to Mr. Diamond's analysis, while Africa in general is rich with many types of natural resources, it was initially poor in the resources most important to early civilization, domesticable plant and animal life.

First, Mr. Diamond identifies 14 major domesticable animal types of which five are most important those being sheep, goats, cows, pigs and horses. The lesser animal types include the Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, Llama and Alpaca, Donkey, Reindeer, Water Buffalo, Yak, Bali cattle, Mitha. It is important to point out that NONE of these animals have ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa; 13 of the 14 DO have ancestors in Eurasia. Most animals in Africa, particularly in the Sahara, are either difficult to domesticate or do not provide sufficient quantities of meat, milk, or labor. Furthermore, four of the five major domesticable plant types: wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum are found in Eurasia. Climate was also a factor as it promoted the diffusion of both domesticable animals and plants throughout Eurasia while hindering their spread through Africa and the Americas.

All this slowed the development of civilization in Africa and subsequent technological advances, while assisting development in Europe and Asia. Hence, while major empires such as the Sassanian, Han Chinese, Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Mongolian etc all derive from Eurasia, Africa has had less success in cultivating sedentary agricultural societies necessary to develop empires and subsequent technological/societal advancement (likewise the environmental devastation caused by many early farming techniques helps in part to explain the decline of the empires of the once-fertile crescent and the now relative poverty of non-oil bearing Arabian states).

Colonialization is a major factor indeed, and while not a symptom of poverty it has greatly exacerbated it. The development of colonies has created a continuing drain on African nation's resources and the destructive political/military intervention of outside powers (note current destabilizing American wars in Yemen and Somalia). However I would note for the asker that the difference between the colonization of America and that of African nations is more profound then the author realizes. In the former Britian sought to develop widespread settlement in North America, whereas in the latter European powers have instead sought widespread control of resources. Thus many of the British settlers in North America grew powerful as a result of owning/working the land and the largely beneficial policies/support of Britian (despite taxation w/out representation, the colonists did receive a great deal of military, technological and financial investment), whereas African nations were subject to massive resource theft and control from a small minority of European colonists. The key point here is that American colonists benefited from the advantages bestowed by their client empire (which in turn was granted them by luck), whereas American natives and Africans have suffered precisely because of said advantages to early Eurasian development.

share|improve this answer
nice and thoughtful answer – ihtkwot Mar 21 '12 at 3:28
+1 for bringing up Jared Diamond. One thing though that I did not find reflected in your answer is that JD also argues that Eurasia being an "horizontal" continent, agricultural innovations made in one of its parts can easily be imported in another one. This is not true for Africa with a clear distinction between sub-Saharan and North Africa for instance. IIRC he cites (in this book or may be in another, I read that a long time ago) the Bantu expansion as being more localised than say the European neolithic revolution. – Alain Pannetier Mar 31 '12 at 8:21
@AlainPannetier it is referenced in the last sentence of the second paragraph, I just didn't go into detail. +1 for making JD's argument more clear! – BrotherJack Mar 31 '12 at 21:12
The shape/climate factor is an important one. Europe had the advantage of being "long," east to west, meaning that goods going from one end to the other traveled ACROSS longitudes AT similar latitudes. Whereas Africa is "long" north to south, meaning that goods from from one end to the other would travel across climate zones. – Tom Au Apr 23 '12 at 23:05
-1 Because you did not see the Elephant in the continent. Namely, Western European countries occupied Africa, despite the continent having hosted and hosting rich civilizations (who did have agriculture and farming - Ethiopia anyone?) – astabada Feb 7 '13 at 9:34
  1. Lack of appreciation for free market culture.
  2. Government intervention in economy.
  3. Genocide against the best and brightest.
  4. Religion
  5. Lower average IQ (this is not that serious)
  6. Trade restriction
  7. Centralized economy

Same problem everywhere actually. Now they are improving greatly due to global trade. If we look at wealth of all countries and compute disparity of wealth not in money but in years, they're not too far behind actually. Just 50 years or so.

Source: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/africa-needs-free-market-economies

In countries with state control of the economy, opposition tends to weaken. Those who disagree with the ruling party soon find themselves without a job and without an income. In contrast, a free economy provides for diffusion of wealth and power. It also provides for higher rates of growth. Thus, between 1966 and 2006, Botswana’s average annual growth rate was 7.22 percent — among the world’s highest. Its income per capita adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity rose from $671 in 1966 to $10,813 in 2005.

Some African countries ended up with nutty dictators. Idi Amin of Uganda, for example, kicked millions of the most productive people out of the country, while Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic was so enthralled by Napoleon Bonaparte that he had himself crowned emperor.

Bad government has devastating consequences.

Take Zimbabwe, where a power-hungry dictator took land away from farmers, both white and black, “guilty” of the crime of supporting the democratic opposition. Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy promptly collapsed and with it, its standard of living. An average Zimbabwean was richer when Ronald Reagan became the President of the United States than today.

share|improve this answer
Could you please identify your sources. (This sounds very much like Hernado de Soto, the IMHO "one-trick-pony", plus perhaps some Murray-and-Herrnstein for good measure :) Not to say that there's not an element of truth (or "truth"), but sources must be clear. – Drux Feb 7 '13 at 7:09
5. Lower average IQ (this is not that serious). – astabada Feb 7 '13 at 9:36
Sources given. There are so many source it's too obvious. Actually a theory that fit data again and again and again must be an awesome theory. So what's so wrong about one trick pony? – Jim Thio Feb 7 '13 at 17:10
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overfitting :) – Drux Feb 7 '13 at 17:55
@JimThio: Some points are correct, some points brutally incorrect and prejudiced. – Lennart Regebro Aug 4 '13 at 13:28

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.