Why are the countries of sub-Saharan Africa the poorest in the world? One reason is the set of ill-designed development strategies that the IMF and the World Bank have implemented in the region for nearly half a century. But the centuries-old culture of leadership that is ingrained in many African societies has played an equally disastrous role.
Indeed, the overwhelming majority of African rulers regard their countries as their personal possessions, to be used as they see fit. This conception of power led in past centuries to kings handing over their subjects to slave traders. Nowadays, leaders squander their countries’ resources and revenues, leaving the majority of their populations mired in poverty, disease, hunger, war, and hopelessness.
The current oil rush in West Africa is a perfect illustration of the problem. Instead of being an asset, oil has become a liability that generates poverty, corruption, ethnic conflict, and ecological disaster.
It need not be this way. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, for example, is using his country’s oil revenues to provide free literacy training and health care, to help alleviate the debts of his Argentinean and Ecuadorian neighbors, to forge energy alliances in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to propose a strategic rapprochement with the Andean countries. He has revived pan-Americanism, and Venezuela has become a member of Mercosur, the regional grouping whose other members include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay.