Mises Wire

In Africa, Poverty Grows Because of the Elites’ Anti-Capitalism

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The flagship African Union (AU) project, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), has finally come into force this week. At last.

Global expansion of the market economy has generated unprecedented prosperity for all of humanity. Now, Africans want to build on these gains. The benefits have been clear. Nearly 80% of human beings lived in extreme poverty during the early 20th century, compared to just over 10% today. By the end of the Second World War, half of the world’s population was still suffering from undernourishment. But now this scourge now affects “only” 10% of individuals worldwide.

Generally speaking, humanitarian indicators worldwide continue to improve. Life expectancy is progressing. Infant mortality is falling. Fewer and fewer children have to work to survive. Illiteracy is becoming the exception.

Asia has been the main focus of this progress in recent years. But while capitalist globalization breaks the Western monopoly of opulence, there are regions where the penetration of wealth is still too slow.

This is the case of sub-Saharan Africa. The proportion of people in extreme poverty worldwide decreased from 36% to 10% between 1990 and 2015 worldwide. This happy development, however, was more modest on the black continent: extreme poverty only fell from 54.3% to 41.1% during the same period, according to the figures of the World Bank. The demographic dynamics coupled with these poor economic performances make Sub-Saharan Africa one of the few regions where poverty has increased in recent years in absolute terms.

It is tempting to look to historical factors, blaming the imperial powers of yesteryear, which, it is true, have not benefited the dominated countries more than they have served the colonial metropoles. Yet, the anti-imperialist argument can’t explain how some countries made so much progress after starting from scratch. In 1950, South Korea’s GDP per capita was equivalent to that of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, Korea is a driving force in the global economy and the home of many firms that compete unabated with the largest US multinationals.

Conversely, many African countries have seen their situation deteriorate since independence. The few African successes, such as Botswana and Mauritius, can unfortunately still be counted on the fingers of one hand. There’s no need to take refuge in the geography, geology or emigration of the productive forces of the black continent to explain its stagnation: a large part of the African setbacks is caused by the anti-capitalist mentality and hostility to the West, which have prevailed since the end of colonization.

In other words, the problem of Africa is ideological as well as economic. Most intellectuals affiliated with African nationalist and anti-imperialist movements were influenced by the Marxist-Leninist catechism. Lenin’s followers ended up convincing African elites that the market economy was a Western plot to enslave the Third World.

What does it matter, they tell us, if collectivism, unlike capitalism, has failed everywhere it has been implemented? For some, adding race struggle to class struggle prevails over adopting ideologies and policies that secure economic prosperity. The anti-capitalists insist it sound economic thinking must be rejected if the ideas come former colonial powers.

This racialist discourse has all the more resonance now that it is incorporated into post-colonial schools of thought whose authority is spreading throughout Europe and the United States. These schools attempt to conflate the universalist ideals of Western liberal culture with efforts to undermine African independence and identity. Yet, should not Africans be free — if they should so chose — to abandon less useful local ideological and cultural traits for higher quality crops and a higher standard of living? If the preservation of indigenous culture trumps all else, then Europeans ought to reject Indo-Arabic figures in favor of more “traditional” Roman numerals.

Anti-capitalism, fueled by feelings hostile to the West, is all the more paradoxical as it condemns the dark continent to live under the financial assistance of the hated powers. The “white man’s burden,” to use the title of William Easterly’s book, becomes the exclusive horizon of the fight against poverty through the implementation of an inefficient “aid” through paternalistic development programs.

This paternalism is all the more perverse since the dependencies it crates undermine any questioning of the institutions that hinder the continent’s development. At a time when migratory flows are less and less tolerated by Western public opinion, deconstructing the ideologies that prevent Africans from flourishing in their homelands is becoming urgent. Who will have the courage to tackle this huge cultural project?

This article was inspired by a conference given at the UN headquarters within the 17th forum of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors (CIFA) It was originally published in French for LeFigaro.

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