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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.

New Statesman
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

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.