The causes of poverty in Africa are deep-rooted, interconnected and paradoxical. Africa, the cradle of humanity, encompasses some of the most resource-rich areas of the planet. Africans would, in fact, be capable of sustaining their economies and even giving aid to other parts of the world. Something, therefore, must have gone terribly wrong for it to be the poorest of all the continents.
The first reason for Africa’s poverty lies in its history and the mindset which this has created both inside and outside its borders. For 3 centuries, the continent was emptied of millions of its strongest people, captured to work as slaves overseas in order to develop other economies. This had the arguable effect of delaying the establishment of economical, political and social structures that might have been comparable with those found elsewhere in the world.
The abolition of slavery opened the door to colonialism, which, while in one sense only a different form of slavery, did bring much-needed benefits such as industrial development, better education and access to medical care. However the colonising Europeans, by means particularly of the bias of the education they provided, groomed Africans to be servants and consumers in a world where white men were the overlords.
At the end of the colonial era, European countries still had need of their old colonies to provide resources for their own continuing development, and neo-colonialism was born. Business contracts were signed in which Europeans blatantly exploited their former colonies while weak or corrupt African leaders failed to negotiate for the benefit of their own people.
The result was that African countries were gripped by impossible debts to foreign regimes, and at the same time ruled by tyrants from among their own people who in many cases were supported by those same foreign regimes. As the rulers took control of the ‘honey pot’ of the natural resources and forced their countrymen into poverty, the seeds of civil war were sown.
Armed conflict, which disrupts the lives of one fifth of all African people and stems directly from the continent’s history, lies behind the poverty of many regions. War makes ordinary life impossible and land unproductive. In addition, it frightens off investors who might otherwise help to boost economic development and create employment.
The second main reason for poverty in Africa can be summarised as poor use of land. This is due partly to lack of education – a historical legacy – and partly to an inability to change. Large areas of land are given over to subsistence farming which, without the use of modern technology, remains inefficient and does not produce anything to sell at market. Hence there is never the money to pay school fees, however low, or to buy the simplest of farm machinery.
Nomadic grazing of livestock was once a way of life, but now population figures are too high and land ownership is too rigid for it to be possible. Over-grazing and over-farming lead to degradation of the land, giving rise to the need for further land to be cleared through slash-and-burn with little regard to the associated loss of biodiversity. Where strict measures – including against poaching – are not put in place, the wild animals which can be a source of revenue through tourism are depleted.
Degradation of the land results in desertification, partly because of the nature of Africa’s soil which is in general made up of sand and laterite with little clay or humus to hold moisture. This soil erodes easily and its high iron and aluminium content means that it bakes hard in the sun and absorbs no rain. Desertification, coupled with the climate change to which it contributes, can result in drought and famine in a poor society with no adequate safety net, and famine drives the population further into poverty.
The third main cause of poverty is directly attributable to the actions of the developed world and can be specifically laid at the door of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Banks. These bodies claim to reduce poverty and yet have been criticized for years for increasing it. Under the flag of neoliberalism, they impose what they call Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP’s) to ensure debt repayment through economic restructuring.
SAP’s decree that repayment of debt must be made a priority over health, education and general development, so the governments of African nations are forced to reduce their spending on the things which most benefit their own people. Loans are granted, therefore, with certain preconditions, the most insidious one being that exports must be increased to provide the cash for repayments. These exports, which may consist of only a very limited range of products, compete with the exports of other countries in a similar situation, and give rise to a glorified price war. This of course has the effect of devaluing them, which favours the importing West, and means that the developing countries struggle increasingly to keep up with their repayments. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer by this means, which has been suggested is in fact the real, cynical underlying agenda of the IMF.
Africa’s poverty is a disgrace in a world of food surpluses and mass communication. However the reasons behind it are far from simple. A history of injustice set in motion a vicious circle of lack of resources to pay for education, and lack of education to produce and refine resources. This is compounded by devastating health problems, climate difficulties, and predation by more economically advanced nations which, while providing assistance under the impetus of their people’s knee-jerk reactions to specific disasters, have yet to change their underlying attitudes.