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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Why are we so desperate to blame white supremacy on women?

Some people can't look at a neo-Nazi without condemning the woman who washes his socks for him. 

Feminists have spent decades trying to get the value of women’s unpaid labour recognised, to basically no avail. The trouble all along, it turns out, was the framing: instead of saying women deserved credit for their contribution to the economy, feminists should have said that women deserve blame. Because blame is one commodity where people are happy to give women their due. The obvious absence of women from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia - where female counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a car allegedly driven by an alt-right supporter called James Alex Fields - could have lead to a discussion about the male near-monopoly on violence. Instead the impulse to cherchez la femme kicked in early and hasn’t let up since.

First, we had the hot-takers whose hot take was that just because women weren’t at the rally didn’t mean they weren’t in some important sense really there. (Actually, yes it did because that’s how space and time work, but what’s a little physics when there’s woman-blaming to do.) Someone must have laundered the swastika T-shirts, reasoned the hot-takers, and fed those Aryan mouths – heck, didn’t these racist guys have moms who should have raised them properly? (I’m pretty certain it’s a physical necessity for them to have had dads too, but what’s a little biology when there’s women-blaming to do?)

Then, there was an actual mom. Field’s mother Samantha Bloom appeared in an interview where she seemed strangely placid and said things like “I don't really talk to him [her son] about his political views” and “Trump’s not a white supremacist” and (the most grotesque evidence of white witlessness) “he had an African-American friend”. But the video, in the most widely circulated edit, was close-cropped and shot from a strangely high angle angle. Pull back, and you can see that Bloom is in a wheelchair. At her son’s arraignment hearing, we learned that she had called 911 in fear of him several times: she variously reported that he hit her in the head, he spat in her face, he threatened her with a knife. The more you open the frame, the less the privileged-white-lady-enabler narrative holds.

None of this is a denial of the existence of female white supremacists, who are obviously a fact both now and through history. But look how easily commentators slide from “there are female racists” to “women are central to racism”. The fact that 53 per cent of white women voted for Donald Trump became one of the most picked-over details of the presidential election aftermath; much, much less was written about how white men as a bloc voted Trump by an even greater 63 per cent. (Although, conversely, when it came to understanding Trump voters, men were treated as the default voice of blue-collar America. “Girls to the front” is only the rule when looking for scapegoats.)

The idea that female “soft power” makes women somehow the most dangerous exponents of racist beliefs – as for example in writer Laura Strong’s claim that the half-million-strong Women’s KKK was more important in normalising the Klan’s dogma than the four-million-strong KKK proper – is in a strange way a regurgitation of the far-right’s own complementarian ideas about sex roles. These hold that men are naturally active and suited to public roles, while women are passive by disposition and suited to the domestic. In the white supremacist account of gender, it’s not sexism that keeps women in the home, doing the housework, looking after all those white babies they’re required to have: it’s just evolution, or God, depending on which justification is prefered.

The critical role of MRA forums in drawing men to the hard right shows that misogyny is a feature, not a bug, of fascist beliefs. This puts those rare women who do take leadership roles in white supremacy in a strange pinch. To assert their right to speak, they have to argue that they’re the exceptions who will hold the rest of their sex to the rule. In Harper’s Magazine this month, there’s a detailed profile of alt-right women by Seyward Derby. One woman puts her intrusion into the properly masculine public sphere down to having an “overactive ‘guy brain’”; another says “Intellectually, I tend to like to hang out with the boys.”

These women are reprehensible, but they shouldn’t be perplexing. They’re following in the footsteps of the anti-feminist women Susan Faludi described in her 1991 book Backlash: “The women always played by their men's rules, and for that they enjoyed the esteem and blessings of their subculture […] They could indeed have it all – by working to prevent all other women from having that same opportunity.” Even so, men in the far right aren’t always forthcoming with the esteem and blessings for their female peers. “These women are the same old tainted, fucked-up strong womyn,” as a YouTube commenter quoted in the Harper’s feature puts it.

When it comes to racism, it’s not that women are innately “better” than men. That would sound suspiciously like complementarianism. It’s that women are less powerful and less violent than men, in white supremacy as everywhere. The men they’re embedded with have an interest in keeping it that way, too: the first person to be terrorised by an extremist of any stripe is usually a woman he lives with.

The alt-right doesn’t look like a bunch of violent white men because benevolent sexism renders violent white women invisible. It looks like a bunch of violent white men because that’s exactly what it is, and that’s exactly where the blame belongs.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.