The Lost Continent

LONDON – Home to one-sixth of the world’s people, but contributing only one-fortieth of world GDP, Africa is the most conspicuous victim of the global recession. After a half-decade of 5% growth, the continent’s growth rate is expected to halve in 2009. Some countries, like Angola, are contracting. Elsewhere, the crisis has swept away the benefits of several years of economic reform. Many Africans will fall back into desperate poverty.

Development economists wring their hands in despair: Africa defies their best efforts to create a miracle. On the eve of decolonization in 1960, real GDP per head in Sub-Saharan Africa was almost three times higher than in Southeast Asia, and Africans were expected to live two years longer on average. In the 50 years since, African real GDP per head grew by 38% and people lived nine years longer, while in Southeast Asia GDP per head grew by 1000% and people lived 32 years longer.

At first, the solution for Africa’s under-development seemed obvious. Africa needed capital, but lacked savings. Therefore, money had to be provided from outside – by institutions like the World Bank. Since extracting commercial interest rates from starving people seemed like usury, the loans had to be offered on a concessionary basis – in effect, aid.

Throwing money at poverty became a panacea. It was easy to sell, and it appealed to people’s humanitarian instincts. It also assuaged the guilt of colonialism, as with parents who give their children expensive gifts to make up for neglecting or mistreating them. But it did no good. Most aid was stolen or wasted. Despite the eight-fold increase in aid per head to the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1960 and 2007, real GDP per head decreased by two-thirds in the same period.