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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496