Zimbabwe and the Causes of African Poverty

by Nicholas Kristof


In my Sunday column, I cite Zimbabwe as evidence that Africa’s basic problem has been bad governance. So here’s your chance to weigh in on the larger question of why Africa has been left behind.

Clearly colonialism — and the disastrous colonial borders left behind — have been a problem. Some people think colonialism is the central problem, and it’s certainly true that the lack of investment in human capital, the way roads and railways were just built from the interior to the coasts, the way certain ethnic groups were favored — all these left huge problems behind. But then again look at those countries that were not colonized.

Thailand wasn’t colonized, and it’s no better off than Malaysia or Singapore next door. Liberia wasn’t formally colonized, although the immigration of former American slaves and the Firestone plantations were reminiscent of colonialism, and it’s no better off than Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone next door. Ethiopia was only lightly colonized, and it didn’t obviously benefit either from the limited colonial imprint.

More broadly, Portugal barely touched areas like the interior of Mozambique, and yet they are no better off than French colonies that underwent a huge French imprint. Indeed, French colonies arguably benefited from the strong legacy of a unifying French language and the ties among Francophone Africa, not least the CFA franc.

Another theory that I allude to is Jared Diamond’s belief that Africa (and Australia) were harmed by the lack of large mammals that could be domesticated and then harnessed in agriculture.

It certainly was a huge advantage for Asia and Europe that a livestock culture arose there (along with immunity to disease). But I think Diamond may overdo the intractability of African mammals.

Years ago when I read his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I was impressed by his arguments about how zebras were untrainable — and then a few days later took my son to the circus, where zebras performed amazing tricks in the center ring. I’ve been skeptical ever since. And while Asian elephants probably are more docile than African elephants, on this trip I spoke to Zimbabwean elephant trainers who insisted that it is easier to train African elephants than Indian elephants.

In any case, it is clear that African countries can register enormous economic growth when they are well-governed. Botswana is a great example of that. Sure, Botswana is helped by its diamonds, but diamonds haven’t done anything for Congo.

The difference is that Botswana since independence has had a series of wise, honest rulers, and partly as a result no conflict. What distinguishes the fastest-growing economies in Africa, also including Rwanda, is simply their good governance. And what distinguishes the worst-performing countries tends to be a combination of bad governance and (often related) incessant conflict.

The silver lining is that good governance is as contagious as bad governance. As it becomes evident that African countries can grow rapidly, there is more pressure from within and from outside for more transparent and efficient rule.

The time is waning for Robert Mugabe and the other Big Men of Africa. In more countries we’re seeing the rise of smart, honest and efficient technocrats. (In Zimbabwe, Arthur Mutambara is an example of one, and he may well be a future leader of the country after Mugabe is gone.) East Asia went quite quickly from disaster area to a center of global economic dynamism, and it’s not impossible that the same could happen in Africa if it gets the kind of leaders it deserves.

In any case, this is a long aside from My Sunday Column on Zimbabwe. Read the column and post your thoughts. Africans and people living in Africa particularly welcome.


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