Probably the most obvious and well-known thing about sub-Saharan Africa* is its poverty. If there’s one thing that everyone knows about the region, it’s that it’s poor. In general, it’s thought of as a “problem continent,” a vast blight on the map of disease, war, brutality, dictatorship, ignorance, warlords, and starvation. As a result, it’s routinely — criminally — ignored, both in the field of international relations and in the media. When African diplomats show up in the news at all, they’re usually begging for more money. Africa is something like the world’s ghetto.

Now as I’ve pointed out before, this perception is a bit out-of-date. Africa has most of the world’s fastest growing economies, there is a substantial middle class in some countries, dictatorship is declining, and war and famine break out with less frequency than the 1900s. And, of course, it grossly oversimplifies and dismisses a huge, diverse area with some success stories.

But for the most part, let’s face it: it’s true. Africa lags behind the rest of the world in almost any indicator. The most damning indicator might be the UN Human Development Index, which ranks countries by living standards. The bottom 18 countries are all African. Poverty is most commonly measured by GDP per capita. The bottom 13 countries are all African. The bottom 29 countries in the World Health Organization’s life expectancy list? All African. The bottom 11 countries in terms of literacy? All African (and Afghanistan). The bottom 7 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index? All African. The top 10 countries for percentage of urban population living in slums? Guess.

This naturally begs the question: Why is it so? Why does Africa always stand out on color-coded maps of the world measuring some social feature? Some people resort to racial theories, blaming Africans for their own problems because they’re black and therefore inherently savage or crude. This has obviously declined a lot since independence, but it still lurks in the background sometimes. Others go the opposite direction and blame white people for everything, pointing out how much the continent was exploited and mismanaged under colonial rule. It is a popular line of thinking in Africa for obvious reasons.

I don’t think either of these beliefs is true. Blaming social problems on race is lazy and hasn’t been taken seriously since the ’60s. Blaming social problems on colonialism also smacks of racism and is lazy as well; it’s something I’ll discuss in a future blog post. Blaming Africa’s problems on a particular race is an easy out since it deflects blame from the race of whomever’s making the argument.

So what’s the matter with Africa?

The short answer is: governance. In the decades since independence African rulers have done a terrible job of governing their countries. The first problem that comes to mind is dictatorship. Africa’s leaders have been some of the world’s most rapacious. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaïre, and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia have all earned their spots in the rogues’ gallery of tyrants, governing through fear, encouraging violence, and running their countries into the ground in the name of power and wealth. Until 1991 no mainland African countries had a democratic process; power was transferred violently or among a small elite. Many dictators were brutal and treated their citizens with contempt or neglect.

But dictatorship isn’t the whole story. Although they are more the exception than the rule, some dictators succeed in developing and modernizing their countries — Paul Kagame of Rwanda being a current example. Others played a vital role in stabilizing countries with weak foundations. Democracies are prone to misrule and ineptitude too — India is a good example, but in Africa so are countries like Nigeria and Zambia.
More important is the quality of government. Government is supposed to manage society, to collect money from it and then use that money to improve the society as a whole. In Africa governments usually fail miserably at this basic task. Roads are unpaved, muddy and potholed. Power is frequently interrupted and rare in rural areas. Schools do little to prepare students for white-collar jobs. The police and army barely do their jobs and harass the innocent as much as the guilty. Sanitation is unmanaged and garbage piles up along the streets.

There’s a few reasons behind this. The crucial factor is corruption. Corruption comes up again and again on this blog, but Africa is probably the best example of an entire part of the world held back by corruption. In Africa corruption isn’t just something a few unethical bureaucrats do to make money on the side; it’s systemic. Many civil servants can’t survive off their wages, so they rely on bribes and extortion to get by. It is so ingrained in the system that it’s barely thought of as illegal. It works to keep the poor poor, since services that are supposed to be free only become available to the rich.

Africa’s elite takes corruption to the next level. Since they hold the reins of power and control the economy, they use their position to extract as much wealth as they can. Foreign aid just flows into their pockets. Tax revenue disappears into their bank accounts. The proceeds from Africa’s fabulous mineral and oil wealth? It shows up in flashy cars, luxurious mansions, and champagne-fueled parties…. for a tiny sliver of Africa’s population. Unsurprisingly, Africa also ranks at the bottom of the Gini coefficient, a statistic that measures economic inequality.

Africa’s political, business and military elite basically treat their role as a way to squeeze the poor. Treasuries are covertly raided for the benefit of ministers’ sons. Foreign mining companies are shaken down for the right to mine African land. Banks are treated as private piggy banks to dip into when times are lean. Public utilities are starved of funds and struggle to deliver their services as a result.

Some scholars say that Africa has a “resource curse” — that despite all those natural resources, it’s doomed to poverty because they just encourage looting and waste. I think there’s definitely some truth to this — there are countries bereft of natural resources, like Japan, who are forced to find other ways to get by and must resort to cleverness. Having natural resources encourages laziness — if the money’s basically just sitting underground, what’s the point in developing a sophisticated knowledge economy? But other countries, like those in Scandinavia and most in Arabia, can squeeze wealth from the ground and then spread it around to benefit society at large. And countries certainly aren’t inherently better off without natural resources — just look at Ethiopia, which mostly depends on agriculture.

Natural resources are definitely a good thing, and can be used to great advantage. The problem comes with governance. The resources have to be put to good use or they won’t matter for the country as a whole. In the era of imperialism, foreigners would extract wealth from the colonies and ship it back home. The Africans did the dirty work while the money developed London and Paris. Today foreign companies — some from Europe, some from China, a few from India — still mostly play an ignoble role in Africa, treating themselves to Africa’s bounty while leaving scraps for the locals to survive on.

But the key problem is local governance. Africa is now independent, and African rulers can call the shots in how their resources are managed. They are failing at this. Across the continent, they treat their positions as ways to gouge their countrymen while offering hardly anything in return. Political scientists call this sort of government “the vampire state,” since they suck their people dry and beat them when they complain. The most brutal dictators, like Mobutu, would even encourage tribal rioting and military pillaging to punish their people for complaining and distract them from their legitimate woes.

As a result, foreign aid, while definitely helpful, won’t change much. You can expect very little to emerge from dictators’ pockets. Even if it’s channeled to lower echelons in African society, corruption and mismanagement is so embedded it won’t see its way to the poorest most of the time.

The results of all this graft and exploitation are fragile institutions and societies. African societies are already fragile because they were grouped together by colonialism, within European-drawn borders and within European-created states. Traditional African society often doesn’t jibe very well with this anyway. But when resources are so mismanaged, ordinary people are practically left to fend for themselves. Uneducated and with few ways to leave their villages, most depend on farming to get by. Institutions like courts and universities that strengthen other countries are mostly absent in large parts of Africa.

Africa is changing. It now seems clearly out of the dark woods of the ’80s, when war, AIDS, and isolation made foreigners give up on it. Its economies are growing and business sectors are cropping up in some countries beyond the obvious oil, diamond, lumber, rubber, etc. Migration to the West is increasing; media and Internet activity is rising. Some countries, like Senegal, Botswana, and South Africa, are doing better than the most depressed parts of Eastern Europe. Unemployed Portuguese are even heading to their former colonies to find work. Democracies like Ghana and Nigeria are holding their rulers accountable for their misdeeds.

But until governance improves, Africa will surely remain at the bottom of international rankings. Without it, its people remain uneducated and ignorant. Without it, roads, railways and ports will remain difficult to use or nonexistent. Without it, there won’t be many opportunities for Africa’s ballooning young population. Without it, African cities will become polluted, congested, possibly violent sprawls. (Some already are.)

Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecoms billionaire, created the Mo Ibrahim Prize in 2007. It gives $5 million to former African heads of state along with $200,000 a year for life. The catch is that they have to be democratically elected, step down according to their constitutions, and have spent their terms actually developing their countries. He’s given it to several African countries since then — mostly in Southern Africa — but on 4 years it went unawarded rather than lowering its standards.

Weak institutions and corruption are systemic problems, and sadly they won’t be easy for Africans (or anyone) to fix. But change can start from the top. As Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Literature laureate from Nigeria, often says, Nigeria suffers from a failure of leadership. It goes for the rest of Africa too.


Sub-Saharan Africa refers to the part of the continent south of the Sahara Desert. It’s the part that usually comes to mind when you think of Africa and what people usually mean when they speak of “Africa.”


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