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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Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times