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Why Africa is Poor: A Poorly Perspective

July 15, 2010

So William Easterly has done it again…in an article titled ‘Was the poverty of Africa determined in 1000 BC‘, Easterly hypothesizes on whether ‘Africa’ was backwards long before ‘slavery and colonialism’.

It is interesting how Easterly insists on capitalisation of:  “BEFORE slavery and colonialism”, as if defending the entire western world against unwarranted claims that slavery and colonialism are linked to Africa’s presently “poor” condition.

I don’t have the data to disclaim his research which in his own words is based on “crude” information but I hardly think Easterly is an authority on African history.

In any case, regardless of whether his findings are accurate or not, I personally feel there is far more relevant, engaging and ultimately fruitful research on the matter that seeks to create solutions to rather than invest in costly academic finger-pointing.

Here’s an excerpt, and then I’ll go on to unpack his weak argument:

A paper by Diego Comin, Erick Gong, and myself was just published in the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics. We collected crude but informative data on the state of technology in various parts of the world in 1000 BC, 0 AD, and 1500 AD.

1500 AD technology is a particularly powerful predictor of per capita income today. 78 percent of the difference in income today between sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe is explained by technology differences that already existed in 1500 AD – even BEFORE the slave trade and colonialism.

Moreover, these technological differences had already appeared by 1000 BC. The state of technology in 1000 BC has a strong correlation with technology 2500 years later, in 1500 AD.

Why do technological differences persist for so long? The ability to invent new technologies is much greater when you have more advanced technology already. James Watt had acquired a lot of tech experience in the mining industry which he used to invent the steam engine. Other people with the ability to make steel could then slap his steam engine on a vehicle running along steel rails and give us railroads.

Past technology alters probabilities of future success, but does not completely determine it. The most famous counter-example: China was historically technologically advanced and did NOT have the industrial revolution.

A large role for history is still likely to sit uncomfortably with modern development practitioners, because you can’t change your history. But we have to face the world as it is, not as we would like it to be: deal with it. Perhaps when you acknowledge the importance of your own history, you are then more likely to transcend it.

I wholeheartedly agree that Africans are ultimately the source of any of their own fortunes or misfortunes. However I cannot accept that all present-day conditions boil down to poor technology according to Easterly’s “crude” historical research.

And finally, were any of you development practitioners not a bit insulted by this one:

A large role for history is still likely to sit uncomfortably with modern development practitioners, because you can’t change your history. But we have to face the world as it is, not as we would like it to be: deal with it. Perhaps when you acknowledge the importance of your own history, you are then more likely to transcend it.

Hahaha… post-colonial jack-ass… Expecting “us” to “deal with” a history according to him and his “crude” research methodologies ?

Imagine the situation reversed. 3 African writers (non-historians, not archeologists or anthropologists) a Malawian, a Somali and a Congolese dude get a grant, do some makeshift (crude by their own admission) research on technology of the Entire European Continent around 1000BC . Notwithstanding the fact that they are completely unqualified, these three men then proceed to boldly accuse the public of being unwilling or incapable of accepting the truth according to their own inexpert interpretations.

oh bugger off…

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2010 3:18 pm

    And here I thought the current development of various regions had been traced back to the wealth of either useful agricultural grains and other plant life, and whether local animals could be domesticated and put to useful work.

  2. t.t. permalink
    July 19, 2010 6:46 am

    i like that this american dude conveniently leaves aside the question of the state of technology in HIS country in 1500 AD. errr….whateverz

    • 2bob_commentator permalink*
      July 19, 2010 12:16 pm

      ditto t.t
      hahaha very clever

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