75% of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa. The ten countries with the highest proportion of people living in extreme poverty are all in Africa. More than 25% of Africans are malnourished. 30% lack access to clean water. In 2016, Africa’s GDP per person was $1,809—barely 10% of the world average.

Why is Africa so poor? To find the answer, we need to go on an archaeological dig through time. We’ll start at the surface with the present.

When you look at Africa today, you soon notice that not everyone is poor. The average person in Botswana is wealthier than their equivalent in India, Peru, or China. Some of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa. The continent isn’t doomed to be poor.

The difference between Africa’s rich and poor countries is usually their governments. In places like Botswana and Namibia, political corruption is minimal. Democracy works the way it’s supposed to and business owners pay taxes, not bribes.

Elsewhere, politicians use power as a way to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. To give just two examples: $32 billion disappeared from the national accounts of oil-rich Angola between 2007 and 2010. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, billions of dollars went from state mining companies into private hands while millions died in a bitter war over resources and political power.

Africa is rich in natural resources. It has some of the world’s largest mines for gold, uranium, platinum, nickel, cobalt, iron ore, and diamonds. Nigeria, Gabon, and Angola also have plenty of oil.

Often, however, governments have used these resources not for the public good but for personal gain. They function as an “extractor elite”—making sure they get a large share of whatever profit comes out of the ground. Electronic financial transactions makes embezzlement and bribery easier than ever. Many Africans are poor because their governments act poorly.

Politicians must be held responsible for their actions. However, dig a little into Africa’s past and you can understand where today’s governments got the idea that power was meant to be self-serving.

Go back 70 years and Europeans ran most of Africa. They had colonized the continent in the 1800’s and drawn the national borders still in use today. If you look hard, you can find some good parts to this story—for example, infant mortality declined with improved basic health care. Overall, however, colonization was disastrous for Africa. The continent is still experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

European politicians wanted their colonies to be profitable. They therefore worked hand in hand with engineers and business leaders to extract anything of value. Politics and business were tied together in a way that benefitted Europeans more than the local population.

This was the model of government that African leaders inherited when they won their independence and the Europeans left. When foreign corporations then came along and offered the new African leaders the same sweet deals it was difficult to resist. The result, however, was small groups of wealthy families running countries that never collected enough tax to fund the health care and education programmes they promised.

So colonialism helps explain why some African leaders act the way they do. But what explains colonialism? How were Europeans able to dominate the much larger continent of Africa?

The simple answer is the right one: because the Europeans were stronger. Europe’s wealth and military power made subduing Africa easy (at least for a time). However, Europe had not always been that strong. How it became so is in part an African story, one that requires digging down to a deeper and even sadder part of the continent’s history: slavery.

Between 1600 and 1800, Europeans bought 12 million Africans. They wanted them to farm the new land they had conquered in the Americas, where 90% of the local labour force had died from disease and maltreatment.

Without the New World and itsBetween 1600 and 1800, Europeans bought 12 million Africans. They wanted them to farm the new land they had conquered in the Americas, where 90% of the local labour force had died from disease and maltreatment.

Without the New World and its African slaves, countries like Britain and France would not have become the dominant global powers that they did. For Britain and then the United States, the availability of very cheap labour and abundant free land (once the Native Americans or Mexicans had been moved) gave them a huge competitive advantage in the world economy. To give just one example, the textile mills at the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution needed cheap cotton harvested by slaves in the American South. Yes, European technical ingenuity, financial innovations, and hard work were important. However, the labour of enslaved Africans was a vital part of the story of how Europe became so strong that it could take over Africa.

There is a final layer of African history that we must excavate. For the truth is that even before the slave trade African societies were not as developed as those in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. There were exceptions, such as the kingdoms of Zimbabwe in the South and Mali in the West, but most of Africa was covered by small, scattered tribes.

Africa was a hard place to live. The climate was erratic. Soils were often poor. The mosquito and tsetse fly carried diseases that killed relentlessly.

Genetically modified crops and improved health care are now changing this picture. Africa is doing better than it ever has. However, continued bad government and the legacy of layers of heartbreaking history ensure that Africa still has a long way to go.

Credit: Alister Chapman

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