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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Can Emmanuel Macron win? Why France is ripe for a liberal resurgence

In an era of far-right populism, an avowed centrist could see off France's political demons. 

The French Presidential Election has so far been the election of the third man. On Sunday 5 February, Benoît Hamon, a short-lived minister for education under François Hollande, became the official candidate of the Socialist party. Much like François Fillon in the opposing right-wing Republican primaries, he had entered the race as the distant third. Nevertheless, he beat the early frontrunner, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in the second round of the Socialist primaries, gaining almost 60 per cent of the vote. 

This was a triumph of the radical left over the establishment. Hamon had left Vall’s government to protest against what they took to be the government’s too pro-business line. When it came to the primaries, he advocated a universal basic income and fully integrating ecological concerns into his programme.

In this two-pronged strategy, too, he followed Fillon’s lead. The Republican candidate overtook the frontrunners former Prime Minister Alain Juppé and President Nicolas Sarkozy after campaigning on both a highly economically liberal and socially conservative Catholic programme.

Both these victories on the left and right prove an old saying about primaries - they are won at the extremes. But there is another old saying, that general elections are won at the centre.

Emmanuel Macron is the centrist candidate for the Presidential election. He also entered the race as the third man, behind frontrunners Marine Le Pen and Fillon. So can he win?

With an election marked by a high level of unpredictability, there are nevertheless a number of reasons to think so. First there is Macron himself. When he entered the race, many thought he would quickly run out of steam, as centrist candidates have in the past, but his "Forward" movement has been highly successful. The crowds it attracts, numbering thousands, are the envy of the other candidates.

Macron's decision to not participate in the French Socialist primaries was also very astute. It means he has dissociated himself from the toxic legacy of the Hollande Presidency, which has already lead to the downfall of his rival, Valls. Indeed, the fact that Hamon, on the left of the Socialists, won the primary is another boon for him. Centre-left voters who would have supported Valls are now likely to rally around him.

If the centre-left has opened for Macron, so has the centre-right. Conservative voters who supported the centrist Alain Juppé might be tempted to join him, particularly after the "Penelopegate" scandal that has engulfed Fillon (the Republican candidate is facing an investigation over claims he paid his wife nearly €1m for a job she did not do). Previously the favourite to win in the second round of elections in May, Fillon now trailsin the polls behind Macron in third place.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, is engulfed in her own "fake jobs" scandal concerning her European Parliament assistant, and she has been sanctioned by the European Parliament which is retaining part of her salary. But it is unlikely that such a scandal will dent her popularity, and she remains well ahead in the polls with 25 per cent of first-round voting intentions.

The difference between Le Pen and Fillon is that, as an anti-establishment and anti-European party, the Front National will not suffer from the misuse of public funds from an institution it rejects. Fillon, however, had made a big show of his strong moral principles in the primaries compared to the "affaires" that continue to plague Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Conservative voters put off by Fillon and unwilling to vote for the FN can rally round Macron’s economic liberalism instead. 

If Macron can make it to the second round of the French Presidential election in May, then he has every chance of becoming France’s next president. Current predictions have him wining over 60 per cent of the second-round vote. But we are not there yet. As a young, intelligent and outside candidate, he remains the receptacle of many people’s longing for a renewal of the political class. But he needs to transform his movement’s dynamic into hard votes - he lags well behind other candidates when it comes to firm intentions of voting. To do so he must give details of his political programme, which he so far failed to do, and which he is coming under increasing pressure to deliver.

The other threat he faces is the unification of the left with the far-left. If Hamon and the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon could come together to form a common ticket then they could muster up to 25 per cent of the vote, which would propel them to first place in the first round of voting. 

What Macron has made clear is that he is pro-European, which starkly marks him out from the other candidates. He is a social, economic and political liberal, and is willing to endorse ideas from across the political spectrum - one of his mottos is that he is neither left nor right. In an age when the political centre has come under intense pressure, maybe a radical centrist is precisely what France needs.

Dr Hugo Drochon is a historian of political thought and an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the book Nietzsche's Great Politics, published 2016.