Root Causes of African Underdevelopment

Different researches on the causes of African underdevelopment emphasize varieties of factors as the root causes of African underdevelopment. Among these the most important ones can be grouped into the following categories: hostile natural environment, archaic production technology, demographic factors, slave trade, colonialism and its extractive institutions, and political instability and predatory states.

  • Hostile Natural Environment
    Most of the African landmass lies within the tropical climate; this made the vast areas of the interior continent home to malaria and tsetse fly which afflict humans and animals respectively. This has led some researchers on the causes of African underdevelopment to test the hypothesis of malaria as the dominant cause of the underdevelopment in the continent. A
    significant number of recent studies tend to support the malaria view both at the macro as well as micro level. It is an established fact that low mortality as a result of better health contributes to economic growth.
    In addition to malaria the animal disease carrying tsetse fly, which is found all over the continent and can incapacitate draught animals, may itself explain the traditional low use of ploughs and other animal-drawn implements and hence the lower productivity of the agricultural sector.
  • Archaic Production Technology
    For centuries the African continent depended on archaic methods of agricultural production. Even the use of ploughs and other animal drawn implements were limited. The agricultural revolution and the use of iron tools came to sub-Saharan Africa later than to other parts of the world. An important reason for the continent’s technological underdevelopment is the
    geographical obstacles to communication both internally and with the rest of the world. The Sahara has been a barrier in the north, and the Atlantic coast had no contact with the rest of the world until the first Europeans arrived around 1500. Influence from the Arab world and India came mainly via the Nile Valley and the East African coast, and had little spillover effect further inland. With the exception of the Niger and the Nile, the continent’s rivers with their large waterfalls have not provided a navigable route to the interior, in contrast to the rivers of Europe and Asia. The problems of today’s land-locked states illustrate the great importance of communication for economic and cultural development
  • Demographic Factors
    ` Africa’s demographic history has been characterized by low density of population and continuous migration and settlement of new areas. The continent with a massive land mass of over 30 million km2 has inhabitants less than that of India at present. Migration has continued right up to the present day, and there is still more migration on this continent — including migration between urban and rural areas — than anywhere else in the world. This continued migration may be due to a hostile geographical environment that debilitates the livelihoods of the population.
    However, at present the demographic picture of the continent is totally different. Rapidly growing population with limited demographic windows of opportunity has caused further strain on the development efforts and environmental sustainability in the continent. Rapid deforestation following population explosion has further aggravated the environmental problems. The rapid deforestation is fueling desertification with its negative impacts on agricultural production in many parts of sub Saharan Africa. Consequently, Africa is more food insecure today than the era of wooden agricultural implements.
  • The Slave Trade
    The slave trade theory is one of the dominant views on the historic root causes of the African underdevelopment. According to this view, Africa’s engagement in slave trade caused massive depopulation of the continent over two centuries. Furthermore, the African countries with the biggest slave exports are by and large the countries with the lowest incomes now (based on per capita gross domestic product in 2000).It has been shown that slave trade prevented state development, encouraged ethnic
    fractionalization and weakened legal institutions and through these channels it affected economic development. The export of an estimated 12 million people across the Atlantic, and possibly a similar number to the Arab world in the course of a full millennium may have been a factor in Africa’s lower population growth compared with that of other continents.
  • The Colonial Extraction System
    Colonialism in Africa took different form compared to Asia. Unlike in Asia, hostile tropical environment prevented colonizers from settling in Africa as a result of which they erected extractive institutions in these colonies. These colonial institutions have persisted over time and they continue to influence the economic performance of the colonies even long after independence.
    Research, shows that colonial extraction when severe enough can cause a society to move from a high to low production level equilibrium. Due to the stability of low level equilibrium, a society can remain trapped in this equilibrium even after the period of colonial extraction is over. However, many African as well non-African scholars do not agree on the link between colonial extraction and the current underdevelopment in Africa. Ethiopia was never colonized but it is one of the least development countries in the continent while many Asian countries which have achieved development miracle since 1960s have been former European colonies.
    However, there is one crucial link between colonialism and underdevelopment in Africa. This is the creation of a political map that is economically irrational and dysfunctional. Colonialism created artificial and non viable nation states that lacked legitimacy. This is the root cause of continued ethnic conflicts and civil wars that ravage the continent since the day of decolonization. Thus unless Africa does away with the current artificial colonial boundaries either through realignment of the current state boundaries wherever there are contestations or through more regional integration similar to the European model but not through hasty “United States of Africa” rhetoric, the continent will never achieve sustainable development.
  • Postcolonial Political Instability
    The post colonial Africa has been characterized by lack of political stability. Post independence African politics was dominated by authoritarian regimes and kleptocracies. These rent seeking dictators often intentionally sow seeds of ethnic conflicts by deliberate political exclusion and marginalization of various ethnic groups that reside within the country. Even after two decades of democratic reforms in the continent, today about 50% of authoritarian states in the world are found in Africa. About 24 out of 54 states in Africa are authoritarian regimes. Only Mauritius qualifies as a full democracy in the continent out of about 30 full democracies in the world while 6 more countries in the continent are flawed democracies.
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