Friday, August 15, 2003

Ethnic Homogeneity and Economic Growth in Africa

A recurrent irritation of mine is the way in which Africa's problems are often written off as somehow inexplicable, with the events of the past having nothing to do with them whatsoever. All too often, lazy opinion writers reach for the old trope of "ancient tribal hatreds", as if the various wars raging on the continent were all due simply to the irrational feuds that befall savages who are left to their own devices. The fact of the matter is that there is nothing unique about the ethnic conflict that troubles Africa, and that colonialism (yes, that dreaded word!) does in truth have a great deal to do with Africa's problems, though not in the simplistic, "imperialist exploitation" manner in which radical leftists have long enjoyed portraying it.

In truth, a great deal of Africa's problems are home grown, and can be traced directly to poor leadership. But if we say that Africa's leaders are largely to blame for the troubles that plague their countries, how do we then explain the consistency with which African states have chosen such poor statesmen to guide them? The answer, I believe, lies in the ethnic diversity of most African states. To most Western, and particularly, American, ears, the notion that diversity might ever be a bad thing must come across as at best impolite, and at worst an affront to decency; but the facts are what they are, and the evidence we do have strongly indicates that the less ethnic cohesion there is in a state, particularly in a developing one, the less stellar the state's long-term economic performance is likely to be, as the following paper illustrates:

William Easterly, Ross Levine - Africa's Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions

A close reading of the aforementioned paper makes clear that the ethnic heterogeneity of African states can account on its' own for nearly half the entire performance gap between East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the 1965-1990 period, and in some cases (for instance, Tanzania and Japan), is enough to account for the entire gap in economic growth. Of course, the complaint can be raised that nations like America and Canada have managed to absorb a wide range of immigrants without sinking into a morass of poverty, but in response I must point out two realities about those countries that are shared by no African country. The first is that both nations are derived for the most part from voluntary immigrants, who as a condition of entry had to be willing and able to assimilate the political and social values of the countries to which they wished to emigrate. The second is that for the greater part of their histories, the majority of immigrants they took in were in fact of similar ethnic origin, and by the time they began broadening their immigration pools, a strong North-American culture, drawing primarily on English and Scottish roots, had planted firm roots in both nations. It is unlikely that the North American colonies would have been such successes had both of these conditions not held early on in their histories.

If we accept the relationship between ethnic heterogeneity and weak economic performance as established, we are then able to make sense of certain phenomena that were formerly inexplicable other than as matters of chance. In particular, it becomes clear why it is that Botswana, a nation rich in natural mineral resources, and hence theoretically vulnerable to the resource curse, should have performed so stellarly where other resource-rich nations like Liberia, Congo and Nigeria have not. The fact is that between 75 to 94% of Botswana's population share Tswana ancestry. This is in sharp contrast to the other three African nations mentioned here, none of which has an ethnic group with a numerical majority.

What are we to make of these facts, then? The first conclusion that can be drawn is that Europe's utter disregard for pre-existing ethnic divisions in carving up the African continent lies at the root of not just the various wars that are being fought across Africa, but also the economic stagnation that has been the fate of the majority of those African nations that have avoided succumbing to warfare up till the present date. The pernicious notion that the ethnic divisions between Africans are no more than a matter of various "tribes", is at once condescending and historically inaccurate. The reality is that there were pre-existing centralized states with widely acknowledged leaders and well-defined heirarchies of governance across the length and breadth of Africa when Europeans first made contact with the continent, and some of these states were of several hundred years standing by that date. Kingdoms like Oyo, Benin, Songhai, Mali, Sokoto and the like were not mere "tribal" agglomerations of wandering peoples to be gathered up into artificial entities called "Nigeria", "Ivory Coast" and so forth, and it is ridiculous to expect peoples who have forged a common consciousness over the course of hundreds of years to suddenly forsake their ethnic identities for the sake of geographical entities that were cobbled together for the administrative convenience of distant imperial overseers.

If we consider the bitterness with which ethnic conflicts have played out in the European continent over the last several hundred years, and the fact that these ethnic rivalries have still not completely extinguished themselves, even in these days of the NATO alliance and the European Union, we see how unrealistic it is to expect any better from peoples that have been yoked together for much less time than the Flemish and the Walloons, or the Serbs, Croats and Albanians have been. With no language barriers to divide them, and several hundred years under a common crown, there are still grumblings and resentments between the Scots and the English, but we persist in expecting the Hausa, the Ijaw and the Tiv, who have no means of communicating without resorting to the English language, to get along like bosom brothers. Are we then justified in complaining when our hopes are disappointed?

What hope, then, for the future? I can see only two possibilities:

  1. either a foreign power steps in to establish its' rule, and over the course of time impresses its' culture so firmly on the ruled that they abandon their different ethnicities for their new one as subjects of the great power, as occurred with the Romans and their various European subjects, or
  2. the borders of the various African states are gradually redrawn to reflect the underlying ethnic realities, by peaceful means or by force of arms.

That the latter option seems far more likely than the former is a thought that depresses me, but the age of empires seems to be permanently behind us, as the reluctance of America to intervene even in a Liberia whose citizens were begging for its' oversight, makes abundantly clear. The American people have no taste for foreign entanglements, and while that is in many respects a good thing, for Africans it is more a fact to be regretted than to be celebrated.