Friday, 6 April 2012

Reasons for low levels of development in sub-Saharan Africa - Is colonialism really to blame???

The capturing of the Moroccan town of Ceuta in 1415, by the Portuguese, marked the beginning of European colonialism in Africa; a movement with the sole purpose of constructing and conserving colonies in one territory by people from another, reaching its peak between 1880 and 1914, a period infamously known as the ‘scramble for Africa’. The main European colonial powers (UK, Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain) were attracted to this continent by its abundance of industrially valuable raw materials and the opportunity to exploit them. Despite independence granted to most sub-Saharan countries in the 1950s and 1960s, the vast majority remain LDCs with prevalent social, political, environmental, economic and demographic issues on a multitude of levels. Many feel that development, which is the process of social and economic advancements which leads to improvements in people’s quality of life and general wellbeing, in sub-Saharan Africa has been greatly hindered by colonialism, thus leaving European colonial powers to blame for low levels of development reflected by projections that at least 23 sub-Saharan nations will fail to reach the Millennium Development Goal 4 by 2040. Although at first, it may seem easy to completely lay blame with European colonial powers, other contributory factors are also responsible for the current situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

The ‘scramble for Africa’ saw 1/5 of the globe added to European overseas territories whilst the 1884 Berlin Conference witnessed the superimposition of colonial powers domains on Africa, condensing a previous 10,000 territories into 57. Fragmentation occurred without consideration of psychological or societal divisions and consequently has seen the continent torn apart by civil war, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide which claimed 800,000 lives. Societal resonance of the ‘scramble for Africa’ has provoked civil conflict, such as the unresolved Darfur Crisis, therefore colonialism can be blamed in part for the low development levels in these countries with both considered one of the 33 classified as LDCs by the UN. The introduction of religion to African society was a secondary impact of colonialism and whilst not aiding unification of these greatly divided countries thus generating social tensions which heighten the probability of civil conflict, their greatest hindrance has been with regards to disease treatment. Religions such as Catholicism do not recognize or accept the use of contraception, making controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS incredibly challenging, with 68% of people with this disease living in Africa. This is proving to be a huge problem in Botswana where 38% of its population are infected and 1/3 of its working force. Appending demographic issues have been developmentally detrimental, with 10 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone and the wider demographic implications of religions introduction to Africa evident within Uganda’s youthful population; a factor that can be linked back to colonialism which has without a doubt de-accelerated African development. Disease, in general, is a huge social problem in Africa, greatly hindering development and whilst some diseases, such as malaria, are a result of Africa’s climate, the impacts that they have on society and thus development have been accentuated by the colonial legacy as in war torn nations aid is increasingly difficult to deliver to those in need, as currently seen in the Horn of Africa, whilst in countries such as DR Congo which has seen 111,971km of road disintegrate into 1000km following independence, the lack of infrastructure hampers aid distribution.

Civil conflict clearly has economic, social, demographic and environmental implications on a multitude of levels with its roots often lying within the political colonial legacy. Upon authorization of independence, power vacuums capable of overthrowing embryonic democracies fabricated by colonial powers led to the formation of dictatorships, with only 9% of sub-Saharan countries classified as democratic. Whilst democracy has often permitted development Botswana, who gained independence in 1966 and have sustained arguably the most stable democratic political system in Africa, have failed to rank significantly higher on development indicators, thus suggesting the dominating development hindrance lies elsewhere. Dictatorships have hindered the formation of stable and sustainable trade partnerships, thus limited export potential, thereby greatly restricting economic growth and therefore development. Inherent cultural differences, which have not be seen to such a degree elsewhere, are the complicating factor preventing not only peace but also preferential trade which permitted 8% growth for the past 5 years in South America and is possibly the best path for Africa to follow. Whilst the occurrence of civil wars cannot solely be blamed on colonialism, its legacy generated favourable conditions for conflict, making it a reoccurring issue continually hampering development.

Attraction of colonial powers to Africa is perhaps testament to the existence of the ‘Paradox of Plenty’, whereby the abundant raw material reserves easily exploitable and profitable offered by Africa, provoked detrimental European attention, consequential impacts clearly visible in Sierra Leone and along the Gold Coast. Unsustainable mining practices have resulted in environmental degradation, accelerated expansion of the Sahara as a consequence of desertification and wide spread deforestation four times the global average, where it would take 260 years for reforms on par with Amazonian ones to be achieved. Political instability and corruption have escalated this as lack of recognised land ownership (only 2% of African forest is under community control), environmental laws and enforcement have enabled the oil industry, for example, in Nigeria to provoke large-scale environmental degradation, impeding development by exploiting the local people and destroying regularity in food sources. Presence of Lake Nyos and Nyiragongo continually pose a threat to countries whilst natural disasters have wiped out all withstanding development, such as the 2002 lava lake burst which consumed 15% of Goma, leaving 120,000 homeless. Constant threat, such as this, further restricts attractive powers of a country to TNCs, whose presence provokes cumulative causation, thereby accelerating development. 50 droughts over the past 50 years and the Horn of Africa currently experiencing the worst famine in 60 years, demonstrates how climate prevails to dictate development, with it linked to multiple influential factors. A recent study links 1/5 of conflicts since 1950 to climate, with a 6% increase in risk of conflict during an El Nino, with every year fighting has broken out in Sudan coinciding with the commencing of El Nino. Although climatic forcing cannot be solely blamed for conflict it is a contributory factor, with the extensive nature of the impacts that climate has allowing it to dominate with regards to determining development; a dominance overpowering colonialism apparent by equally low development in Ethiopia and Liberia, the two un-colonised countries. Africa is an uninhabitable land with climatic extremes occurring with detrimental frequency and unnerving unpredictability whilst absence of regularity in food, water and energy supplies make it practically impossible to settle in an area and kick start development. Restrictions on agricultural productivity, imposed by climate, are most destructive to sub-Saharan development as both the Demographic Transition Model and Rostow Model of Development (although both arguably out-dated and Eurocentric) indicate increased agricultural productivity is intrinsic to initiating development. Although not directly linked to colonialism, it can be argued that political fragmentation has reduced people’s ability, especially the nomadic tribes such as the Rendille, to adapt and deal with Africa’s naturally variable climate. Consequently, subsistence farming persists and without large-scale farming, accompanied by appropriate mechanization, progress will continually be restricted, unless they are able to establish a contemporary route to development. Global climate change threatens to accentuate already large-scale problematic effects of climate on Africa’s development, with as much as a 6C temperature increase, 15-95cm sea-level rise, drastic precipitation reduction and increase in magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events predicted, partially as a result of anthropogenic forcing from industrialised countries; the persistence of climate’s hindrance upon development making it detrimental to a degree beyond colonialism’s comparative contemporary extent.

Economic progression is intrinsic to development, thus by delaying and prevailing to restrict economic growth via siphoning of resource wealth continued by post-independence trade agreements, colonialism has hindered development. 29 of the 40 HIPCs are sub-Saharan with large debts, originating from ambitious development projects initiated by corrupt leaders following independence, rendering governments incapable of investing in health care and education – essential areas with both capable of diluting demographic constraints and provoking the ‘Girl Effect’. As seen by the 1970s oil crisis, increasing globalisation is amplifying Africa’s vulnerability to market fluctuations, initially generated by economic centralisation during colonialism. Attraction for TNCs is limited, due to the afore-mentioned, consequently casting doubts over whether Africa could be the next recipient of the global shift, making it difficult to reduce economic vulnerability currently preventing substantial progression. In some cases aid has been anti-developmental, with tied aid prompting recipients to spend funds inappropriately, such as the Pergau Dam, whilst 60% is considered ‘phantom’. European countries have since ‘untied’ their aid but 2/3 of American aid is still tied, with most recipients those posing national security threats. Imbalance and inconsistencies are hazardous with dependent countries suffering from aid reductions since the 1970s (50% reduction in 1990) and the export side of economies, arguably the most vulnerable, benefitting the greatest, meaning aid fails to directly address people’s quality of life.

Demographically, the impacts of the slave trade were substantially greater than the number actually enslaved (7-12 million) as the targeting of young men hampered agricultural progression, with social and political instability additional consequences. Clearly, the slave trade contemporarily hindered development, with the argument that it made way for colonialism, but in comparison to the colonial legacy and climate, its influence on modern day development levels is minimal, with similarly adverse bites in population pyramids repercussions of civil conflict and ethnic cleansing, as seen with the Rwandan genocide which claimed the lives of 20% of its population. Population growth, rapidly accelerating across Africa, is the greatest demographic constraint and, again, whilst not directly linked to colonialism, introduction of European lifestyles, principally religion, has only increased growth rate which is expected to exceed Asia’s over coming decades.

European colonialism has detrimentally hindered sub-Saharan development, leaving the political map of Africa a permanent liability resulting from the insatiable hunger of colonial powers for raw materials, thus constitutes a reason to lay some blame with Europe for current low levels of sub-Saharan development. Other factors, such as disease prevalence, environmental degradation, corruption, conflict, issues with aid and global market fluctuations have drastically slowed development and, in extreme cases, halted it all together for a period of time. Whilst many of these contributory factors can be linked to colonialism, thus increasing its influence on development, the impacts are likely to only have short-term affects, compared to those of climate, and with international guidance, investment and support along with appropriate technology, stimulating the economic growth required to accelerate the development so long anticipated in Africa is possible. Therefore, it is large-scale natural events such as failed monsoons, floods, droughts, significant natural disasters, sea level rise and global climate change that have played the most dominant role in dictating African development and continue to do so. Unfortunately, these climatic limitations are not evenly distributed around the globe and are likely to increase in severity and magnitude in the future; being concentrated in the areas lacking in the levels of development which enable countries to adapt and mitigate the impacts of natural variability and extremes. So intricately linked are factors affecting development that they formulated a lethal combination which presents on-going challenges to the resolution of Africa’s development issue; absence of peace, due to inherent cultural differences on a level not previously observed, and Africa’s unique environment, continually plagued by variability and extremes, are the greatest complicating obstacles preventing development. Whilst we cannot attempt to fully understand issues facing African development, perhaps combining knowledge acquired from European colonialism, a movement although unsustainable and exploitative saw some advancements, with our understanding of the process of development elsewhere and greater African independence, collectively a solution to their problems could be conceived; allowing sub-Saharan nations to arguably gain from colonialism for the first time.


  1. Well, I think it's fair to say you're getting the gist of what your teacher is telling you ;)

    1. Thanks - the real test though will be the exam!!! I hope you are finding this blog of some use.....