Is Sub-Saharan Africa like Medieval Europe?

A new report suggests that African economies resemble those of Medieval Europe, and so hopes of sustained growth across the continent are unrealistic.

Economists have long puzzled over why economies across much of Sub-Saharan Africa still lag behind. Two LSE researchers, Stephen Broadberry and Leigh Gardner, have come up with a new explanation.

Many economies across Sub-Saharan Africa resemble those of medieval Europe, they argue, not just because GDP per capita is comparable (adjusting to 1990 prices), but also because they lack the political institutions to sustain economic growth. And just like Medieval Europe, African economies experience sporadic spurts of growth, followed by economic reversals.

The only way the Medieval economies of Northern Europe were able to start sustaining growth was when the state became strong enough to secure property rights, and yet democratic enough that politicians couldn’t arbitrarily intervene in business. This simply hasn’t happened in much of Africa, the report maintains. As a result, despite impressive growth figures in parts of the continent – an IMF report in April predicted that Sub-Saharan Africa is set to grow three times faster than America, Japan and Western Europe in 2014 – there isn’t much cause for optimism. Africa will take a long, long time to catch up.

They even compare Sub-Saharan African economies with different periods of Medieval Europe – so for instance, the average earner in Sierra Leone, Burundi and Malawi has the same annual income as the average Englishman before the Black Death in the fourteenth century ($750), while average per capita income in South Africa and Botswana ($2,000) is comparable to an average Englishman around 1800.

So how helpful are these findings? An FT Alphaville blog says that the theory is flawed in parts because you can’t really map modern African political institutions onto medieval ones (is Kenya’s political system really Tudor?) and because countries' fortunes change in unpredictable ways. The Economist suggests that as well as focusing on the importance of political institutions it should consider social changes too – improved public health care and education will boost African growth.

Sometimes a thought-provoking historic parallel can be a good way to focus public attention on an issue. Oxfam, for instance, recently issued a report warning that the UK risked returning to ‘Victorian levels’ of inequality. The LSE report is a way to highlight the importance of addressing the problems of corruption, unaccountability and political patronage that thwart many economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. But comparing the vast and varied region to Medieval Europe is overly reductive.

It is also unfair. Medieval in often used inter-changeably with “backwards” and while the authors don’t imply this directly, they do suggest that Sub-Saharan Africa is playing a doomed game of catch-up. A more realistic, and more optimistic, picture, is that each country in Sub-Saharan Africa has its own set of challenges, and its own (perhaps halting) growth trajectory.
 

Clothes infected by the Black Death being burnt in medieval Europe. An illustration from the 'Romance of Alexander' in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Will anyone sing for the Brexiters?

The five acts booked to perform at pro-Brexit music festival Bpop Live are down to one.

Do Brexiters like music too? If the lineup of Bpoplive (or more accurately: “Brexit Live presents: Bpop Live”) is anything to go by, the answer is no. Ok, former lineup.

The anti-Europe rally-cum-music festival has already been postponed once, after the drum and bass duo Sigma cancelled saying they “weren’t told Bpoplive was a political event”.

But then earlier this week the party was back on, set for Sunday 19 June, 4 days before the referendum, and a week before Glastonbury, saving music lovers a difficult dilemma. The new lineup had just 5 acts: the 90s boybands East17 and 5ive, Alesha Dixon of Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing fame, family act Sister Sledge and Gwen Dickey of Rose Royce.

Unfortunately for those who have already shelled out £23 for a ticket, that 5 is now down to 1. First to pull out were 5ive, who told the Mirror that “as a band [they] have no political allegiances or opinions for either side.” Instead, they said, their “allegiance is first and foremost to their fans” - all 4our of them.

Next to drop was Alesha Dixon, whose spokesperson said that she decided to withdraw when it became clear that the event was to be “more of a political rally with entertainment included” than “a multi-artist pop concert in a fantastic venue in the heart of the UK”. Some reports suggested she was wary of sharing a platform with Nigel Farage, though she has no qualms about sitting behind a big desk with Simon Cowell.

A spokesperson for Sister Sledge then told Political Scrapbook that they had left the Brexit family too, swiftly followed by East 17 who decided not to stay another day.

So, it’s down to Gwen Dickey.

Dickey seems as yet disinclined to exit the Brexit stage, telling the Mirror: "I am not allowed to get into political matters in this lovely country and vote. It is not allowed as a American citizen living here. I have enough going on in my head and heart regarding matters in my own country at this time. Who will be the next President of the USA is of greater concern to me and for you?"

With the event in flux, it doesn’t look like the tickets are selling quickly.

In February, as David Cameron’s EU renegotiation floundered, the Daily Mail ran a front-page editorial asking “Who will speak for England?” Watch out for tomorrow’s update: “Who will sing for the Brexiters?”

I'm a mole, innit.