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.

  • 2
    This question more or less asks if it is on topic. IMO it is not. :-) Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 7:25
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    Might be better to move this to economics.SE
    – apoorv020
    Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 11:46
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    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. Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 15:35
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    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
    Commented Aug 3, 2013 at 7:39
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    @bobb Africa can't buy consumer goods. It's a continent, not a person.
    – rougon
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 17:25

7 Answers 7


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.

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    Point 3 is just plain trash. Societies with similar life expectancies (e.g. Europa before industrialization) did not cause the individuals to stop working, amassing wealth, providing inheritances, etc. More about this on the chat. For once, I will agree with @Bobb.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 7:35
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    Also socialism is only detrimental per se, since there's plenty of ways you can have a socialist economy. Britain's post war socialism still allowed free enterprise outside of nationalised industries, and certainly rule of law was maintained then. Indeed socialist Britain created the National Health Service to improve the people's health. So how does that factor against point 3? They cancel each other out?
    – user17846
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 8:16
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    Ghana's initial post-independence plan was to model on British socialism by getting funding for a hydro-electric dam, which would power factories which made aluminium for export. Both industries would be nationalised, and the excess electrical output would let the rest of the country industrialise. Unfortunately Britain's promise of funding fell through because of domestic issues, and the American companies that promised to foot the bill refused to do so unless Ghana exported raw materials for their smelts, which would make Ghana poorer. Ghana refused. Then there was a coup, allegedly CIA.
    – user17846
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 8:19
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    Thereafter Ghana promised to export raw materials for the American companies. So let's not pretend that it was just the Russians and Chinese would were undermining Africa's fledgling independent governments, nor that socialism is always bad. That outcome was true because the decent socialist regimes were got rid of, and well, all that's left were the ones backed by the USSR or PRC. Like Zimbabwe.
    – user17846
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 8:29
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    I think "Africa ravaged by socialism" is quite a bold statement for a continent plagued by dictatorship everywhere. Some of them MAY be "socialist" (Democratic Republic of Kongo says they are socialists, somehow) but most are not. And actually, the one that are the most socials are somehow the one that have more financial power like South Africa. I really don't understand your answer, even if it's backed by a book.
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 10:33

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.

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    nice and thoughtful answer
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Mar 21, 2012 at 3:28
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    +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. Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 8:21
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    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
    Commented Apr 23, 2012 at 23:05
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    @astabada No, both Jared Diamond and I are well aware of the African Elephant. As explained in [i]Guns, Germs, and Steel[/i] the African Elephant wasn't domesticated, it was tamed. A major distinction brought about by the problem of captive breeding. Furthermore, the whole point of the referenced material is that it points out [i]why[/i] European nations were able to occupy Africa. Africa was able to develop more quickly initially than Europe, but the natural lack of domesticated plant and animal life (not cultural or genetic differences) is what ultimately lead to European domination. Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 20:09
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    One could posit that whichever continent homo sapiens evolved on (Africa) would co-evolve animals that were more distrustful of humans and hence less domesticable. I would refer to a www.NSF.gov article on this, but the US is undergoing a congressional spasm/service outage at the moment. Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 20:36

Most African nations became independent around 1950-1965. That is almost 70 years ago. Blaming all problems on colonial powers who left them to fence for themselves is a pretty weak argument by now. At the same time Asian countries became independent and they've done a whole lot better. Add to that the almost limitless development aid western nations supply. Thailand, for example has never received anything, and they do pretty well.

So, what reasons can I give?

  • Rampant corruption. Thailand rates high on the corruption index, but Africa trumps the list. With (dis)honors. Leaders enrich themselves and their entourage, nobody else.

  • Tribalism. You can only partly blame this on colonial powers. As far as I know very few African nations are a real nation. People feel first member of tribe X and only then citizen of state Y. After 50 years of independence you might expect to see less tribalism.

  • Very poor education. A few lucky ones can study in Europe or America. Upon graduation, they more often than not decide to stay where they are. That way they make a lot more money. Their countries don't benefit from their knowledge.

  • Western (and Chinese) exploitation. Development aid almost always comes with strings attached. Usually the wrong ones: "we only give you xxx million if you buy our products". Or "If you invest in growing more whatevers (which we don't want) we cut your aid."

There are plenty more reasons, but these I see as the main ones.

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    Sources would improve this answer; this is a string of unsupported opinions.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 12:10

An influential up-to-date source on this topic is "Why nations fail" by Acemoglu and Robinson. Their basic argument is that institutions are the factor most responsible of the prosperity. They largely divide political institutions into extractive and inclusive. The former are oriented towards enabling a small portions to extract and manage profits from economy, while the latter allow the majority to invest and innovate to generate wealth, and participate in decision-making.

The further argue that while both type of institutions can generate growth, only in the inclusive case can the growth be sustained in the long run. The prerequisites for both types of growth is a strong state; in the extractive case, the elites may then feel secure enough to invest in the hope to later extract more. Of course, if the country is failed, this will not happen, whoever is lucky to have control more arm will try and extract as much as possible.

Both cases are normally stable equlibria; the inclusive institutions induces political pluralism, which in its turn prevents small groups from grabbing power and creating extractive institutions. If the institutions are extractive, the powers is also controlled by the rich, enabling more extractive institutions. Of course there are exceptions, e. g. when more inclusiveness has to be allowed to avert revolution/fight external threats. Or when extractors manage to subdue political pluralism.

Africa, in the era of the slave trade and colonial empires was of course an epitome of extractive institutions. Upon de-colonization, in the best case, these same institutions were taken over by new elites, and in the worst case, no-one was able to take over, leading to violence and chaos continuing to this day like in DRK. In most cases, the extractive nature of institutions remains, and politically, the institutions are unstable enough to discourage the elites from investment.

All in all the book is long, I would recommend to read it in its entirety; one more point about modern US's colonial past. From the get-go, these colonies were very different from African or e. g. Mesoamerican. When Columbus/Cortes/etc. arrived, they created or taken over extremely extractive institutions, basically just enslaving the population to mine for gold or silver etc. People who arrived to New England hoped to do the same, but were quickly disappointed - there were no existing extractive institutions easy to take over, nor were there anything to extract. They needed hard work and every member of colony to survive, and that lead to creation of inclusive institutions from get-go.


Briefly, Sub-Saharan Africa had low population density- which meant low specialization, high transport costs, and low wealth concentration- because

  1. Coevolution of pathogens, parasites & predators. Since our species originated there, things which prey upon us or which compete with us have had more time to 'coevolve'. This also impacted domestication of animals though importation- e.g. of cattle- could enable pastoral wealth to greatly increase. This should have led to a population explosion and may in fact be associated with the rapid spread of certain language families. However overall population density was still handicapped by endemic diseases which only began to yield to modern medicine in the late nineteenth century
  2. The Slave Trade enabled a particular type of patrimonial social order to emerge which reduced incentives for 'class formation' and retarded the development of high value to weight adding industries. It is not that entrepreneurial drive was lacking or that the people weren't innovative and quick to learn- rather, it was a case of quick profits from selling people rather than building up capital by exploiting their labor power in situ. On the other hand, the Slave Trade enabled Potentates to preserve independence and even build Empires. But once the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was halted a power vacuum was created. King Leopold's Congo showed that this could make Africans much worse off.

Africa's population started to grow rapidly only relatively recently. Still, most visitors didn't feel Africans were poor in the way that the Indians were poor. Africans were well built, handsome and had sufficient leisure to pursue sophisticated cultural and religious activities. Thus a 'hut tax' was needed to force Africans to take up laboring jobs. But wages were low and traditional African mores re. sharing, bride-price, gift giving etc were a hindrance in the emergence of a class of entrepreneurs. Yet among some communities, there can be no doubt that there were prosperous men who were shrewd businessmen and who found no difficulty entering into profitable relationships with diverse ethnic trading networks. However, inheritance customs, whether traditional or Islamic militated against the continuity of the enterprise on the death of the principal.

By the time of Independence, there had been and was a rapid breakdown of traditional 'risk pooling' and sharing strategies without its replacement by 'modern' cash economy based schemes. Sometimes leaders were out of touch with the ground reality. In other case, idealistic Socialism or grandiose plans based on borrowed money hindered the development of 'civil society'. There were also one or two utterly paranoid leaders- just as on other continents.

What this meant was that poverty, as a social condition of a relatively novel sort, started reproducing itself rapidly under conditions of 'involution', agricultural and otherwise. This means falling marginal product- i.e. lower real wages.

Another factor, much highlighted in the Seventies was the fall in the terms of trade for primary producers which reduced real income for much of Sub Saharan Africa. What is amazing is the resilience and dynamism of the population. Africa, like Europe and more recently the East Asian countries, is using mass poverty to bring itself to the point of economic 'take-off'. Thankfully, plenty of International NGOs are working very hard to ensure that Africa remains poor. Sadly, this may not be enough. Unless we learn to think globally and embrace a sustainable life-style for the sake of our planet, Sub-Saharan Africa may grow rich.


African Nations are poor for several reasons, Here is a list I made.

1) Conflict & Wars

An example of war and conflicts decimating an African's country economy is the east African TPLF-Ethiopian government conflict, a recent missile attack that damaged an airport and there are Eritrean Mercenary-Like troops in Ethiopia starting massacres.

2) Disease

In the past, there were many diseases such as Malaria and Ebola that especially hit African country's hard. An example of this is the DRC where throughout the start of the 21st century HIV and other diseases sprang up.

3) Climate & Weather

Cyclones are devastating events in Africa that can tear down businesses and devastate villages. Many Cyclones that hit east and central-east Africa come from the Indian ocean while other Cyclones can form in the Atlantic near the coast of north and central Africa.

4) Colonialism

Although there are almost no colonies today, in the past many European countries pushed out Cushite & Indigenous people out of Africa. Arabians (Such as Yemen) also invaded Africa and exploited its items and abused indigenous people and cultures. This can have a lasting impact.

Africa is a hard place to establish a developed nation or even impossible without the help of other developed nations outside of the continent (Take, for example, Ethiopian Cities which were built by the Chinese). Simply because of the environment, Deforestation could backfire. Wars can damage infrastructure. Africa won't be developing forever though.

  • @Orion This topic really resonates with me, speaking to the fact that many people are stereotyping African nations is insulting to me. (As I am an African)
    – Tardy
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 16:47

This Article by "Compassion.com emphasizes child malnourishment and poverty as well as rampant government corruption. When I observe the situation in African nations it almost resembles a neverending quiet revolution. There are many wars/conflicts in east/central Africa as I write and even if Africa has many Natural resources it still is considered "Developing". here is a piece of the article that came out to me the most:

"Poor people often lack hope for the future because they live in a lie. The lie of poverty, that is reinforced day-in and day-out is, “You don’t matter. You’re worthless.”

Whether in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda or Zambia, the poor in the world's poorest countries live in hopelessness...every day, in multiple ways.

Imagine not being able to provide enough food for your children or pay for a hospital visit when a child is sick or injured. Imagine the guilt, grief, and despair.

The poor are helpless in the face of war and natural disasters. When natural disasters and conflict occur, the poor suffer the most. They are unprotected, uncared for, and unnoticed.

Overcrowded urban areas where millions of the poor live in slum conditions increase the risk of disease and increase the death toll when conflict and war erupt or an environmental disaster hits.

Poverty often causes the poor to put pressure on their environment, and in turn the environment contributes to the suffering the poor endure.

Damage to the natural environment in which the poor live increases the impact floods and other natural disasters have. But "natural disasters" are as much a result of poor government, bad infrastructure, population density, rampant population growth and unequal living conditions as anything else. Extreme poverty helps create the disaster.

Limited access to sanitation and clean water lead to poor hygiene practices and more disease, which hinder the ability of the poor to work or attend school. And when someone more powerful takes advantage of them, from withholding wages or payments to trafficking a child, the poor are unable to pursue justice, for they lack the money and connections to do so."

Meaning of "Developing"

Many people say the word "Developing" to refer to mostly African/Latin American Nations. Developing is better than using the term "Third World" which is disrespectful. Developing is when a country doesn't have enough resources to be successful but has those resources getting increased when that resource (And Health Generally) is many, it thus will be a "Developed nation".

Here is another piece that explains why Africa lives in poverty:

"One in three Africans live below the global poverty line.2 They make up 70 percent of the global poor, and their numbers are rising.2 Despite the overwhelming number of extremely poor people in Africa, the causes of poverty on the continent are no different than the causes of poverty around the world. They can be grouped into two primary categories—external or cultural factors and internal elements.

External factors include, but are not limited to:

Lack of shelter Limited access to clean water resources Food insecurity Lack of access to health care Government corruption Poor infrastructure Limited or dwindling natural resources The internal elements that contribute to poverty are intangible and can include, >among many possibilities, deficiencies in:

Knowledge Aspiration Diligence Values Self-confidence Self-esteem When you’ve never seen someone escape a life of poverty, you have no reason to believe that escape is possible. Poverty becomes your lot in life and part of your identity.

You can’t imagine a better future because you’ve never seen one, or if you have, it’s a future for other people, not a future for someone like you.

This lack of hope keeps people in poverty even when an opportunity that could change their lives presents itself.

What Causes Poverty in Sub-saharan Africa? While the root causes of poverty in Sub-saharan Africa are not different from the causes of poverty anywhere else, poverty has been growing in Sub-saharan Africa due to the long-term impacts of external factors like war, genocide, famine, and land availability. Unless all the factors are addressed, the cycle of poverty in Sub-saharan Africa will gain momentum and continue grow, as each component of poverty reinforces the others."

As you pointed out in your question, you are right the US is a former colony but the US was not the "Victim" of the colonization, Indigenous Americans were the victims. Mussolini's Italy attempted to colonize Ethiopia only to meet a gradual failure. The way the Italians met the Ethiopian's with such hostility and toxicity certainly did affect their economy. Colonization does qualify as a factor.

  • @Orion The Americans were the "Colonizers", not the Colonized
    – Tardy
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 2:04
  • You've provided two answers; could you update both to explain the apparent contradiction?
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 15:05

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