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Why is Africa underdeveloped?

There are many theories trying to explain why the African continent is the global basket case. While the per capita income of the rest of the world in 2000 was US$ 8800, in Africa it was US$ 1800, nowhere else is life expectancy so low and illiteracy rates so high. And that although since the early 1950s $US 568 billion in aid has been poured into the continent.

In a new article (via 3 quarks daily – one of my favourite general interest blogs), the economist Nathan Nunn argues, that slavery is the main culprit. “Without the slave trades, 72% of Africa’s income gap with the rest of the world would not exist today.” Slavery affected those regions most developed between 1400 and 1900, which are today the poorest in Africa. Slavery, not only the transatlantic variety but also the earlier inter-African one, lead to political instability, weakened states, political and ethnic fragmentation and a deterioration of legal institutions.

Now, „One Big Thing“ theories are always suspicious. So let me throw in another (of the many) explanations. Many anthropologists will point to socio-cultural factors as being of great importance for African underdevelopment. One of the most important seems to be the egalitarian ethos of many traditional African societies. Jackson, a young South African man I got to know in Johannesburg earlier this year, had wanted to upgrade his family house back in the village by replacing the mud floor with concrete. But even this minimal attempt at differentiating his household from the others had spurred so much envy and suspicion that he eventually gave up on the project. Private wealth accumulation is seen as antisocial behaviour threatening to undermine the dense reciprocal relationships between villagers, who help each other out in times of need. The fear is that once some villagers are wealthy enough to do without these insurance networks, they might refuse to help needy others and thus destroy the fundamental sense of security in the community.

Successful people are constantly pressured to share their wealth with family and friends. If they don’t, they easily are branded as witches or have other envious people bewitching them. If you want to know more about this subject (and understand German!) read my old brand eins column or this article about witchcraft and the Swiss anthropologist David Signer (via antropologi). For a highly informative account of the role of witchcraft in Cameroon read Peter Geschieres The Modernity of Witchcraft.