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  • James Green

Why are we helping Africa?

Updated: Mar 19

Africa. It is one of the rare words that draws strong and yet almost infinitely different reactions. I have had the opportunity to talk with more people interested in Africa over this past year than I ever could have imagined. For someone that has always been drawn to Africa, it has been a dream come true. Everyone has had a unique perspective they’ve shared with me, from the 1st generation Nigerian college students to the elderly Church Woman who support missions to Africa. I’ve meet everyone from veteran travelers of Africa to those skeptical of doing work in Africa when there are still as many here in the United States who need help. During these interactions, there are a few questions that arise again and again. They often seem uncomfortable to ask, and only do after several minutes of conversation. They quietly ask: “Why does it seem Africa is farther behind the rest of the world?”, and the big one: “We have been helping Africa for 50 years, it hasn’t worked, why should we keep trying?”


I know many readers may recoil at the seemingly emotionless end of the last question, but I don’t. We do live in a world where our resources are not limitless, and so it is worthwhile to explore this question. I was also struck by how different Africa seemed to me so I had some of the same thoughts. I have been lucky enough to travel to over 20 countries on the continents of South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. Despite traveling to Africa last, the level of development struck me as truly different to what I had experienced elsewhere in the world. I investigated this question while living in Uganda as best I could, reading deeper into the history of Africa. Instead of finding the answer, it left me with more questions. This led me to into African Studies and economic development once I enrolled as a college student. What I discovered is that the answer is not only complicated, it’s long, and we don’t know all of it. Most of the buzzwords ring true, but they are all only a portion of the explanation. After the conversations over Ugandan Art, I now know how widely these questions are held. There have been many books written on this subject, I will include a full bibliography at the end of this, and I highly encourage anyone interested in this subject to pursue it further as they will have far deeper and better things to say on this subject than me.


I am focusing on answering four specific questions:

1. Why has Africa followed a different development trajectory than the rest of the world?

2. Why did Aid to Africa historically not generate positive results?

3. Is Aid working now?

4. What is the way forward?


I would like to start out by defining what I mean by development. When I say development, I am attempting to describe the human progression toward modern society, usually through the development of an agrarian society. I am trying to define what I am talking about when I say development, not make a judgement over one lifestyle over another. In fact, I would argue that the humans are happier in smaller communities that closer resemble our hunter-gatherer past (if you that sounds like an extreme point of view, read Tribe by Sebastian Junger). For long periods of history, groups of hunter-gatherers received better nutrition than their agricultural peers due to their reliance on a single crop[1]. However, farming brought several advantages that soon set the course of human history. First among them was the ability to support much larger populations. Through farming, food surpluses were generated, freeing up individuals to specialize in new trades. The tropics of Sub-Saharan Africa contained a cocktail of diseases, notably malaria, that forced populations to keep low density levels, keeping their settlement sizes much lower[2]. The new technologies generated by these trades further increased the difference between farming and hunter-gatherer societies. The anthropologist, Jared Diamond, states in Guns, Germs, And Steel that, “All other things being equal, technology develops fastest in large productive regions with large human populations, many potential inventors, and many competing societies”[3].


Diamond cites three factors that lead to the differences in technology between Africa and Eurasia- time to the onset of food production, barriers to diffusion, and human population size. Food production began separately in two areas of Eurasia, China and Mesopotamia, giving Eurasia a head start. In addition to adopting food production first, Eurasia has the additional benefit of having an East-West Axis. This means that as individuals discovered new crops and improved cultivation techniques, they could be used by their neighbors due to shared latitude and climate. The Saharan Desert created a natural barrier to the spread of these improvements in farming, isolating Sub-Saharan Africa from Eurasia’s increasing ability to produce more food. Improvements lead to more improvements, and so the difference caused by this isolation became more pronounced as time progressed.


Geography was not the only barrier that isolated Sub-Saharan Africa, so did the climate. The tropics of Sub-Saharan Africa are home to some of the most devastating diseases which further increased the isolation of the region. The native animals of Africa proved unable to be domesticated[4]. The Tsetse Fly exacerbated this problem by killing any draft animals brought into Sub-Saharan Africa[5]. This meant that no farming in Africa could be conducted with the assistance of animal labor. Diseases also impeded human diffusion. Malaria and Yellow Fever both originate in the jungles of Sub-Saharan Africa, causing lower levels of population density and making it all but impossible for outsiders to travel to the region, preventing trade and the exchange of information. An example of this was in 1830, when a British Entrepreneur named Macgregor Laird attempted to create a paddle boat service up the Niger River through the Niger Delta[6]. He believed that legitimate trade could supplant the role of slavery in the region. Unfortunately for the expedition, Malaria took a heavy toll, with only nine of the forty-eight Europeans surviving. A following expedition in 1841 meet a similar fate, with 43 of the 145 Europeans succumbing to fever within the first two months. Finally, a breakthrough came in 1854. Though the expedition was a commercial failure, the expedition was notable because not one life was lost to Malaria. The Scottish Doctor, William Baikie, instructed his crew to take daily doses of quinine as a prophylactic against the fever. Quinine does not prevent malaria infections, but it does prevent the onset of the associated fevers. This discovery opened interior Africa to Europeans for the first time. By 1858, David Livingston began his first expedition in Africa, popularizing Africa to Europe and inspiring many more European expeditions of Africa.


The opening of Interior Africa to Europeans had profound impacts. Suddenly the vast natural resources of Africa were within reach and commercial extraction of these resources was economically viable. The “Scramble for Africa” had begun. European countries launched expeditions to set up trading centers deep into Africa, signing treaties with local chiefs along the way, often at little to no cost[7]. Tensions eventually escalated between European Nations over their competing growing empires. Otto Von Bismark organized the Conference of Berlin in 1885 in order to organize the colonization of Africa and avoid further escalations between European Nations in order to maintain the current status quo in Europe[8]. The future of Africa would be decided without a single delegate from an African Nation.


Once the map had clearly been divided, European Countries set out to solidify their new African Colonies. Each European State took a unique path with their colonies. Some states did place importance on converting their new colonies to Christianity[9]. Others also pursed vaccination programs and development programs. The British actively sought out to combat the slave trade after it was formally abolished in their empire in 1838[10]. All however, had no intention of their new colonies not turning a profit. Some pursued this profit ruthlessly. The worst offender from this time period was King Leopold of Belgium, who controlled the Congo River Basin for himself alone, under the guise of a charitable protectorate. While the Congo was under his control from 1880 to 1908, leading historians estimate that half of the population was killed – 10 million people[11]. The industrial revolution had caused a dramatic increase in the demand for rubber, creating additional demands on extraction efficiency[12]. In what may be the first international human rights campaign, people organized all over the world to protest King Leopold’s treatment of The Congo, eventually forcing him to turn over the control to the Belgium Government[13].


The brutal treatment of many Africans under colonial rule is what this period is known for, but many of the political structures put in place had the more lasting impact. One of these colonial legacies was their method of organizing the people of their colonies. In many instances, separate communities would be lumped into a “tribe” for simplicity, at times not even sharing a common language. This would have a lasting impact after independence when these groups would have to compete over the distribution of state resources. The colonial system was built to create profits for the state, not to respond to demands of the populace for public goods or policy. When Africa’s period of strongmen began after decolonization, it was simply a matter of taking over the structures built by the colonial powers. The lack of investment in education also had profound implications. When independence reached the African States, many found themselves with a lack of experienced and trained professionals who would be able to organize and run an effective government on behalf of the people. The Democratic Republic of the Congo had sixteen college graduates, out of a country of 13 million, and not one was an engineer or a physician[14].


With a few exceptions, the first generation of African leaders used their position in the government to line their pockets. They often relied on their own regional and tribal groups for support and inflaming tribal relations as a tool for remaining in power. The cold war provided another lucrative opportunity for these government leaders as the West and East competed over their spheres of influence. To maintain their alliances in Africa, both sides looked the other way at brutal regimes while propping them up with military aid. Like their colonial predecessors, these governments focused on creating profit. Government structures were built to create more money making opportunities for government officials. Examples of this range from agricultural purchasing boards (local farmers are only allowed to sell their crops to the government , at a prearranged, artificially low price. The government would then sell it at the market price, with the government official capturing the difference) to foreign enterprises (the foreign company would be required to sign over a certain ownership percentage to local officials in order to do business)[15].


The time of plenty would come to an end for most African governments due to a worldwide crash in commodity prices. These governments were reliant on the income from natural resource extraction, and quickly found themselves in expanding debt. Government bureaucracies had become bloated by the amount of jobs provided for patronage; their payrolls padded with “phantom employees”[16]. Large segments of the economy were controlled by government officials more concerned with their bribe than with the profitability of the venture, leading many government ventures to operate at a loss[17]. These governments required outside financial help, which the competing factions of the Cold War provided. During the 1980’s, much of the aid provided to Africa came in the form of financial transfers to corrupt governments who needed the money to maintain their support base. International organizations now targeted Africa’s state central economic policies as the cause of Africa’s development woes. In exchange for the needed financial aid programs to keep their governments’ afloat, African governments accepted a total of 243 loan agreements, known as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). Privatization brought its own set of problems. When a government owned company is privatized, opportunities exist for individuals in power to gain control of the new private company relative to common citizens. Nigeria provides a clear example of this; Nigerian Military Officials soon controlled 4/5th’s of the 100 state owned enterprises that were privatized in the late 1980’s[18].


By the 1980’s, Most African’s were as poor or poorer than they were at the time of Independence[19]. Not a single head of an African State had allowed himself to be voted out of office in three decades[20]. The world Bank concluded in 1989 that economic structures were not the only source of Africa’s problems, there were political problems to the status quo as well[21]. Out of 50 African States, almost all were military dictatorships or one-party states. Opposition parties were illegal in 32 States. Only Senegal, Botswana, and The Gambia were able to successfully hold sustained multi-party elections. By the end of the 1980’s, more challenges to Africa’s “Big Man Rule” began to emerge from demonstrations and protests. These movements were often led by student groups, but they were widely supported by labor unions, church leaders, journalists, and business. The end of the Cold War also caused a major shift in the support of African Governments[22]. Cold War politics would no longer provide a justification for the support of oppressive regimes, and human rights violations could no longer be publicly ignored. Civil wars would soon engulf much of Africa.


By 1989, the initial fighting against the “Big Man” rule had begun and would become an enduring feature of Africa[23]. Over a period on 5 years, many of the one-party states were forced to accept multi-party politics. Unfortunately, a new breed of dictator emerged, one’s sensitive to the need to maintain the image of a human right supporting democracy. Opposition leaders, once in power, often reverted to the same systems of corruption used by their predecessors. Not all the old guard was overthrown during this period however, Gabon’s Omar Bongo would reign for 42 years until his death in 2009, when power passed down to his son. Power also didn’t always pass cleanly from one ruler to the next. Civil wars ripped countries apart, often far exceeding two warring parties. When Zaire’s government collapsed in 1995, there were 10 rebel groups already inside its’ border[24]. Rwanda paid the price for the colonial method of tribal organization almost 100 years earlier as the catastrophe of Rwanda unfolded. The Hutu and Tutsi tribal lines had historically been very blurred, until the Germans began identifying them as distinct ethnic groups. In the 1920’s, Belgium took this a step further by issuing identification cards which specified which tribe the holder belonged to[25]. The Rwandan Genocide that unfolded in 1994 was not caused by ancient ethnic grievances but by a radical elite fighting an internal power struggle using inflamed ethnic tensions as a pretext for violence. While Eastern Africa was watching the conflict in Rwanda spill over into Zaire, Western Africa was ripped apart by civil war in Liberia that quickly spread into Sierra Leone[26]. Child Soldiers were widely used in pursuit of diamond mines and rubber fields. The war in Zaire, also known as The Great African War, along with the war in Western Africa, would continue until the international community stepped in in 2002. During this period, HIV would spread from Uganda and Tanzania west and south until it covered the entire continent[27]. Sadly, most African Leaders refused to acknowledge the rising health crisis, with only Uganda and Senegal launching effective anti-AIDS programs.


The 21st century brought changes to Africa. A commodity price boom brought in a large amount of foreign investment in what was termed ‘a new scramble for Africa’, only this time with China as one of the principal actors[28]. A 2008 global food crisis triggered an interest in uncultivated land, causing foreign companies to buy or lease large tracts of arable land in Africa. Cell phones also spread across Africa, connecting people previously isolated due to the cost of building the infrastructure for landlines. Mobile banking connected millions to the economy that had been previously been left out. All my Ugandan friends do their banking on mobile devices. To illustrate this point, in 2000, Nigeria had 400,000 landlines for a population of 160 million. By 2012, Nigeria had 60 million mobile phone subscribers. These factors, combined with Western Debt Relief programs, provided Africa with a period of sustained economic growth at a rate of 5% a year[29]. Nonetheless, Africa’s ruling elite- the economic gatekeepers, were able to capture a disproportionate amount of this growth through self-enrichment. This is especially apparent in African states that generated revenue through mining, oil and gas as these industries. Despite generating huge profits, these industries create few jobs, which increases the economic inequality. A report prepared for the African Union in 2003 estimated the annual cost of corruption at $148 billion dollars, more than a quarter of the continents’ total gross domestic product[30]. Africa’s population also experienced urbanization faster than anywhere else in the world[31]. Due to the economic inequality present in most of Africa, this meant a rise in slums and shanty towns. A UN report concluded, “The unfolding pattern is one of disjointed, dysfunctional, and unsustainable urban geographies of inequality and human suffering, with oceans of poverty containing islands of wealth.”


Africa suffered from its cultural isolation from Eurasia, caused both by landscape and diseases. Malaria caused low population density numbers which were further depleted through the slave trade, reducing the amount of specialization their societies could develop. Colonial powers created government structures with the states goal of producing profits, while organizing separate groups into artificial tribes. These government structures enable the next decades of African leaders to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of the population. The oil crisis of the 1970’s caused a large portion of the national budget to be spent on oil imports, restricting public goods. The global recession of the 1980’s further reduced the budgets of African Governments as commodity prices dropped. To compensate for the lost revenues, African governments borrowed heavily, falling deep into debt. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union, were these ‘Big Men’ of Africa held to some level of account about multi-party elections, human rights, and corruption. Democracies are struggling forward all over the continent, and history has shown these institutions get stronger as time goes by.


Is it getting better?


Despite its’ past and current difficulties, Africa has seen dramatic changes for the better. Since the early 1990’s, more than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty[32]. The average incomes for hundreds of millions of Africans has more than doubled, 6 million fewer children die every year from disease, the prevalence of war has fallen, life expectancy has risen by six years, tens of millions more girls are in school, the amount of people living with chronic hunger has been more than cut in half, and millions more people have access to clean water. Childhood survival rates have seen dramatic improvement. In 1960, 22 out of every 100 children born would not live to see their fifth birthday, today that number has been reduced to 5 deaths per hundred births[33]. That same period of time has seen the average life expectancy improve from fifty to sixty-six years. Significant progress has also been made on diseases. Malaria fatalities have declined by 47% from 2000 to 2013. AIDS related deaths fell by 35% from 2005 to 2013. Tuberculosis deaths fell by 33% between 2000 and 2013. Finally, diarrhea killed 5 million children a year in the early 1990’s, in 2013, it killed 760,000. In 1980, only half of the girls in Africa attended school, today that number has improved to four out of five. The incidence of civil wars has also decreased by more than half since the 1980’s, battlefield deaths have fallen by 75%. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped from 59% in 1999 to 47% in 2011[34]. The headlines covering Africa may not seem like much has changed, but there has been dramatic improvements in the lives of millions of Africans.


The Way forward


To move forward, Africa will need continued investments in education, infrastructure, and health. No country has sustained rapid economic growth without significant investment in these areas[35]. Infrastructure, specifically transportation like harbors, roads, and railways, will be vital in connecting Africa’s economies with the world. There will also need to be continued resources spent on improving agricultural productivity. This helps not only the poor, who spend the highest percentage of their income on food, but the families who rely on agriculture for their livelihood[36]. Education will also need to remain a focus, despite the progress made. Africa’s literacy rate has steadily climbed from 33 percent in the 1960's to 67 percent by the 1980's and today exceeds 80 percent[37]. A specific focus will need to be paid to girls’ education as their literacy rates, while improving, still lag behind boys. The chief economist of the World Bank in 1992 stated, “when one takes into account all the benefits, educating girls quite possibly yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.[38]” Continued health educational outreach on clean water, washing raw vegetables, improved sanitation, and the basic transmission of germs and diseases will also be important. The last key sector of investment is in health. As mentioned earlier, in the 1990’s, 5 million children died from diarrhea while the annual number today is 760,000. This dramatic reduction is due mainly to oral re-hydration therapy (ORT)[39]. Fortunately, it is cheap and simple to make as its only ingredients are salt, sugar, and water. Malaria is another area we need to continue to make progress on, but since 2002, malaria deaths have fallen by 47 percent worldwide, 4 million of those live were children under five[40].


There will also need to be an emphasis placed on watching out for crony capitalism. The privatization of state-owned enterprises should be conducted in a way that doesn’t allow connections to dictate the new business elite. Policies must also be put in place to allow farmers to sell their produce on the free market. Thankfully these are also on a dramatic decline[41]. Decreased corruption will also allow for more legitimate entrepreneurs to step forward, creating jobs and providing needed services. These jobs will be needed. Sub-Saharan Africa has a young population, with a large group about to enter the work force. Large numbers of unemployed young males have often been a precursor for civil unrest. Innovative ways like micro finance can be found to connect investors worldwide with opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many Africans today live in an incredibly difficult situation, one that was created long before they were born, but it is improving, and it is improving fast. With emphasis on education, health, infrastructure, and governmental transparency, millions more will be pulled out of extreme poverty and given a better chance at reaching their full potential.

  1. [1]Harari, Yuval. Sapiens. Pg. 50. [2]Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Pg.259. [3]Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Pg. 250. [4]Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Pg. 156. [5]Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Pg. 179. [6]Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg.215. [7] Hochschhild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghosts. Pg. 71. [8] Hochschhild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghosts. Pg.85. [9] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 192. [10]Hochschhild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghosts. Pg. 27. [11] Hochschhild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghosts. Pg.233. [12] Hochschhild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghosts. Pg.159. [13] Hochschhild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghosts. Pg. 259. [14] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 190. [15] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 619. [16] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 618. [17]Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 618. [18] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 623. [19] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 621. [20] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 623. [21] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 623. [22] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 637. [23] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 636. [24]Stearns, Jason. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Pg. 50. [25] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 519. [26] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 642. [27] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 646. [28] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 668. [29] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 669. [30] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 673. [31] Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa. Pg. 674. [32]Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 4. [33] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 6. [34] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 37. [35] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 86. [36] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 171 [37] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 87. [38] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 88. [39] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 173. [40] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 210. [41] Radelet, Steven. The Great Surge. Pg. 194.



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