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What Is Wrong With Sub-Saharan Africa?

The world’s economic powers finally appear to be closing ranks behind efforts to address global poverty and economic underdevelopment. At this year’s World Economic Forum, within the G-8, and elsewhere, the consensus that something needs to be done has been as clear and as it is welcome. But, for some of the world’s poorest regions, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), a commitment to help may not be enough.

Basic indicators of economic and social development show SSA lagging far behind other developing areas. The average income per capita of SSA countries in 2000 was less than half that for all developing countries, about 40% of the level of East Asian and Pacific developing countries, and less than 25% that of Latin America and the Caribbean countries.

Similarly, life expectancy at birth in SSA countries lagged 16 years behind the developing-country average, 14 years behind countries in South Asia, and 21 years behind countries in East Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In combined gross enrolment in primary, secondary and higher education, SSA countries stood 19% below the average for developing countries, 11% below South Asian countries, 29% below East Asia and the Pacific, and 32% below Latin America and the Caribbean.

What accounts for this broad-based underdevelopment? Until the late 1800’s, most of Africa was unexplored and occupied by hunter-gatherers and practitioners of subsistence agriculture. Land was relatively abundant and allocated by tribal chiefs without regard to Western-style property rights. The only territorial units resembling those that exist today were Ethiopia, Liberia, and South Africa.