It is no secret that Africa is the most under-developed continent in the world. Seventy-five of the world’s poorest countries are located in Africa. The 10 countries with the highest percentage of people living in extreme poverty (<1.25/day) were also in Africa. One in three people in sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished. You can read more statistics about African poverty here.
These are startling statistics that most of us would rather not spend too much time considering. The reasons for Africa’s poverty are complicated, ranging from political instability, to relatively new independent governments, to a history of colonialism, greed and corruption, drought, and everything in between.
Yet however complicated the problem of poverty in Africa is, it is not insurmountable. The world contains enough resources and money to feed, clothe, shelter, and sustain every human on the planet. The problem is not a supply problem but a development and distribution one. More than anything, the world needs to turn its attention, resources, and involvement to African development
The History of African Poverty and Development
Before we can realistically seek to address the problems in Africa, we must first seek to understand them. And as the saying goes,
those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
Historically, despite the common knowledge of Africa’s widespread poverty, progress in development and attention from other countries has been relatively slow. Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, Africa became known as the “Dark Continent.” This term was coined by U.S. journalist and explorer Henry Stanley. Stanley dubbed Africa the “Dark Continent” because of the largely unknown nature of Africa. To the West, Africa remained a largely unexplored mystery. To the world, its dark skinned people were considered an inferior race.
The “Dark Continent” remained a mystery not for lack of interest in exploring it, but due to a variety of insurmountable barriers. Harsh desert borders and impenetrable terrain, impassable river rapids and underwater predators, and exotic diseases made it nearly impossible to penetrate Africa’s interior and live to tell about it. Its tribal cultures were misunderstood and seen as dangerous to the “civilized” world. Hence, Africa trailed behind the rest of the world in discovery, development, and colonization.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the darkness began to recede. Colonization of Africa took off as the land was parceled out to the main European powers in the Berlin Conference. A period of guiltless exploitation of Africa’s natural resources followed the Berlin Conference due to the advances in 20th century technology that made this possible. The land that was once a great mystery was now a land ripe for European Imperialism. Respect for the people and concern for the development of Africa remained tragically absent.
During the mid to late 1900s, colonization was brought to a halt. Much of Africa was decolonized during this time, a critical achievement for African nations. But that achievement did not come without paying a catastrophic cost. With its resources now depleted and the colonial influence removed, Africa was left in a state of bereft poverty, its people almost entirely dependent on aid. War and corruption plagued the continent. Governments and political, economic, and social systems were in chaotic ruins.
The problems in Africa today are deeply rooted in this history of mystery, colonization and imperialism, disruption, and a second-rate view of its people. African nations have been struggling to rebuild their governments and systems ever since. Yet without stable independent governments and effective political, economic, and social systems, poverty maintains its tight grip on Africa.
Changing the Trajectory of African Poverty and Development
Without taking a hard look at the history of Africa and the roles Western countries have played, we may be prone to repeat this history in our efforts to fix it. Africa does not need a new, 21st century form of colonization, imperialism, and exploitation. Africa does not need the world too look at it as a resource to exploit, a people to be pitied, a continent to be aided.
It needs the world to look at its people not as second-rate people to be pitied, but as equal human beings who have dignity, intelligence, beauty, and value.
It needs the world to look at its cultures not as something to be feared, but as cultures to be understood and respected.
It needs the world to look at its land not as land to be ravaged, but as land to help flourish.
It needs the world too look at it not as a continent stuck in backward dependence, as a beautiful, resourceful continent ready to be unlocked and unveiled.
Africa needs the world to value the contributions it can make to the world through its people, its cultures, and its resources. Africa needs the world to seek to expose those valuable contributions and help unleash the people and the land to make them.
When that happens, the course of the Dark Continent’s future will be fundamentally changed, for the good of Africa and the good of the whole world. And perhaps, when that happens, we need to coin a new term for this captivating continent.
For another look at the history of colonization in the Dark Continent, read this article.
*This article was a collaborative work between Britney Hamm and Gwen Rapp. Without Gwen’s extensive knowledge, research, and contributions to this topic, it would not be what it is. Thanks for reading, and please share!