Africa’s growth tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions

Dec 2009

We are talking here just about the sub-saharan nations, i.e. excluding the five nations of north Africa bordering the Mediterranean.

Of the fifty sovereign sub-saharan nations depicted here (plus the undepicted Somaliland, still of limited recognition) only three (Ethiopia, Lesotho & Swaziland) existed previous to the European conquest (or in the case of Liberia, American colonization).

Virtually all their current borders (even for the aforementioned three cases) are largely a colonial legacy.

These borders fundamentally come from the delimitation of the mutual speheres on conquest of the diverse European powers.
More often than not, the myriad local ethnicities became fragmentated by such political division.
Plainly, a level of Balkanization far greater than anything ever attested by the Balkans themselves.

This lack of coherence between national and ethnic norders has been one of the most pernicious (and as can be seen above, pervasive) legacies of the colonial administration, in spite of having ended largely some half a century ago.

Here is a seminal paper that analyses in some detail this critical phenomenon: Easterly, W. and R. Levine (1997). Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions. Quarterly Journal of Economics 112(4): 1203-1250.

IMHO reading this paper is a must for any people interested in the current complex problems of modern sub-saharian Africa.

Explaining cross-country differences in growth rates requires not only an understanding of the link between growth and public policies, but also an understanding of why countries choose different public policies.
This paper shows that ethnic diversity helps explain crosscountry differences in public policies, political stability, and other economic indicators.
In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, economic growth is associated with low schooling, political instability, underdeveloped financial systems, distorted foreign exchange markets, high government deficits, and insufficient infrastructure.
Africa’s high ethnic fragmentation explains a significant part of most of these characteristics.
Please comment.

As usual, any imput would be highly welcomed.

Thanks in advance :) :) :cool:
May 2008
This is an excellent and timely subject for debate Sylla ..

I've witnessed in roundabout fashion the thread's gestation elsewhere and clearly a fresh focus may do us wonders. Apologies, as I cannot at present read the PDF on my present contraption but can rectify that smartly enough in the morn.

Just a few random thoughts ...

I'm assuming the paper is from the same Easterley who has authored 'White Man's Burden' and 'The Elusive Quest for Growth'? He has been known for his opposition to Jeffrey Sachs approach which is essentially the assertion that there are identifiable problems which can be accurately cost-benefited (the so-called blanket panacea) which just requires capital funding and political willpower. A very expensive flop this will be too (if pursued), according to Easterley. (It wasn't in any event it was dropped as a credible plan of action after 9/11 when the Bush administration's attention was deflected elsewhere).

Sachs had arrived at specific dollar amounts needed to lift people out of the 'poverty trap' (extrapolating from a test site in Kenya which has run successfully enough and multiplying his figures to generate guesstimates required for the rest of the sub-continent) but his approach as I recall presupposed a number of questionable assumptions; (a) a generalised state of future political calm free from ethnic tensions and (b) the political will to implement the plan successfully and therefore the assumption of 'good governance' among his select group of prime candidates - Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and at least eight other sub-Saharan states were all, at his time of writing (late 90's) put forward as suitable (ie reliable) govts to whom funding could be released.

Easterley's approach has been characterised as one that is sceptical of any large disbursements of aid (specifically the multilateral kind as I recall), it being self-evident that all aid hitherto (1960's onwards) has failed to deliver any tangible benefits (this is just the stark presentation of the case) and that a far more effective strategy would be to look at those piecemeal improvers on the ground (the 'searchers') as he calls them who are attuned to the locally specific working environment. Writing out blank cheques to conquer this or that has been disastrous as each country (again sometimes on account of deleterious peculiarities relating to it's specific ethnic composition) has it's own varied and unique circumstances. In short, it is impossible to apply grandiose quick-fix schemes such as have been contemplated by the UN and have received backing on account of Sach's reputation.

.... now, it may be noticed (as I often find), is that where you find a smart and seemingly exhaustive economic analysis which becomes a prospective policy document it is usually neutral (ie non-committal) with respect to the ongoing political 'arrangements' in the country concerned. In many, if not most cases, the distribution of favour and power is intimately tied in with the extended clientalist linkages (often ethnically based) and fostered assiduously over the years by the govt. And so, a vital dimension in the economic framework proposed (which is supposedly predictive) is thus, simply not there.

Easterley's aproach doesn't usually suffer from this oversight .. but that's not to say we cannot find flaws!

Maybe a case by case analysis?? .. just don't know, I'm easy one way or the other!!
Last edited: