Africa’s Problems Are Not Due to Civil Wars Only

Two days ago I attended a workshop on economic ethics. It was a rather interesting one. But one thing has stricken me: when telling us students “the wonderful story” of growth, our professor showed us this simulation. His only explanation on why the African countries have such a low life expectancy and per capita income compared with the rest of the world: civil wars. It was said only “by the way”, but nevertheless: it was a terrible oversimplification.

To claim that Africa is poor only because of the many civil wars is just untrue. I don’t think my professor being that ignorant. But he said what he said, and that was wrong.

It is a sad fact that the African continent has been stricken by civil wars repeatedly. Many of them have become (in)famous in the world history: Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Angola, Somalia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone – to name a few only. Nevertheless, this is not the sole reason of Africa’s underdevelopment and poverty. There are many other factors, some of which may be even more important.

Consider, furthermore, that there have been civil wars outside of Africa as well. The former Yugoslavia is perhaps the best example of a war-torn state that is not as poor as, e.g., Liberia. Even though the Yugoslavian war took place not long ago (in the 90’s) and was a really terrible one. That suggests the conclusion that there are other factors contributing to a poverty trap than civil wars.

I would like to name some further factors omitted by my professor, which I think contributed to the poverty in Africa at least as much as civil wars. They are: the colonialist and Cold War past; counter-productive development aid and agricultural subvention schemes in the “First World”; geographical challenges; the climate; and the global warming.

  • Colonialist and Cold War past: many claim that the colonial powers provided their African colonies with fundamental infrastructure and thus contributed to their further development. That is true – at least for urban regions. But, on the other hand, they at the same time deeply destabilized Africa – through “artificial” political entities, through purposely adding fuel to ethnic conflicts, through concentrating the colonial economies on extracting (see also pt. 2) etc. Additionally, in the Cold War time, America, Soviet Union and China used Africa (even more than other Third World regions) as a “playing ground” for their proxy wars. This contributed to even further destabilization and hatred.
  • Wrong (often counter-productive) development aid: almost all the development aid from the Western World is highly conditioned (and the conditions, such as blind fiscal austerity, often have negative impacts on development), concentrated on big projects (especially fostering the extraction industries, thus contributing to the resource curse phenomenon), and using the premise “one size fits all”. This is what is called the Washington Consensus policy – by following it, the Western donor countries are deepening Africa’s problems instead of solving them. Furthermore there is the problem of the huge agricultural subventions in the EU, US, Japan. Because of them, African markets are flooded with cheap food – local producers often cannot compete with it. Thus the rich are impeding the development of local food production – as if natural challenges (see the next three points) weren’t enough.
  • Geographical challenges: Africa is full of hostile habitats. The continent’s agriculture is very weak, and this is not a surprise considering that much of its area are deserts, savannas and tropical rain forests – all habitats not really supporting human agricultural activities (though for different reasons).
  • The climate: even without global warming (see next point), Africa’s climate is highly hostile to human activity. Droughts, floods, high temperatures are a steady threat to agriculture. And, what is often forgotten: it is hardly possible for humans to conduct any activities when it is too hot – as is often the case in many African countries. It is not laziness, low productivity or whatever:

[The people] wake up in the morning and start looking for water to clean their faces. Who has money, buys himself something for breakfast […]. Already in the morning the heat is hard to bear – one has to seek a place where there is shadow. In the course of time the shadow will move – and the people will move with the shadow. It is their single activity of the day: moving with the shadow, hiding in its dark, cool inside. (Ryszard Kapuściński, “Heban”, my own translation)

  • The climate change: global warming, forced mainly through economic activities in the Western World, is further deepening the problems listed above. All of them. There are more and more so called climate wars – e.g. in Darfur – and thus ever more political destabilization. Higher and more volatile temperatures are imposing ever more pressures on the agriculture. And the West is ignoring this problem in its development aid strategies.

Claiming that civil wars are the single important factor causing Africa’s poverty, is not only an oversimplification – it is untrue and contains an implicit message that Africans are the ones who be blamed for their bad fate.

Meanwhile, the problem is much more complex. If we want to solve it, we need a much broader picture.


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