Africa: the causes of under-development and the challenges of globalisation Jarle Simensen, Professor Emeritus, Department of archaeology, conservation and history, University of Oslo The decolonisation of Africa in the 1960s was a watershed experience for the generation that watched a whole continent open up; it spurred widespread engagement and intellectual curiosity. Partner countries south of the Sahara became the focus of Norway’s recently established development aid, and today more than half of Norway’s bilateral assistance still goes to countries in Africa. Even so, the continent has become marginalised in the public debate. This is probably partly due to disappointment over Africa’s lack of development, reinforced by the one-sided, negative picture painted by the media. At the same time, an intellectual curiosity persists; underdevelopment is just as interesting as success. The need for a robust Africa policy is greater than ever. Internal causes of underdevelopment
A historical perspective is essential in order to understand why African countries have failed to take part in the international economic development we have seen in this era of globalisation. But a reservation is necessary in the context of this article: we must bear in mind that we are employing one specific standard, namely economic growth, which is different from painting a full and balanced picture of the continent’s history and culture. Most of the issues dealt with here are the subject of considerable debate, but a fuller account of them is beyond the scope of an article of this kind. I will focus on sub-Saharan Africa, but I will not go into the specific situation of the Republic of South Africa in any detail. Geographical and demographic conditions are key factors in Africa’s development, as is confirmed by many of today’s crises. The agricultural revolution and the use of iron tools came to sub-Saharan Africa later than to other parts of the world; indeed some have talked of a “1000-year lag”. The continent as a whole is inhospitable for agriculture. It is also home to a number of indigenous diseases that afflict both humans and animals. For example, the disease-carrying tsetse fly, which is found all over the continent and can incapacitate draught animals, may itself explain the traditional low use of ploughs and other animal-drawn implements. Africa’s demographic history has been characterised by low density of population and continuous migration and settlement of new areas. This has continued right up to the present day, and there is still more migration on this continent – including migration between urban and rural areas – than anywhere else in the world. There have been few tightly-knit, stable settlements with established social structures that could form the basis for enduring states and empires of the kind that have fostered advanced civilisations in other parts of the world. This does not mean that African history has been devoid of political dynamism. The medieval kingdoms by the Niger River, the Ethiopian Empire, and the progressive kingdoms in West Africa in the 19th century testify to the contrary. Nevertheless, monumental stone constructions and local written traditions like those found in advanced cultures elsewhere in the world are lacking in Africa. An important reason for the continent’s technological underdevelopment is the geographical obstacles to communication both internally and with the rest of the world. The Sahara has been a barrier in the north, and the Atlantic coast had no contact with the rest of the world until the first Europeans arrived around 1500. Influence from the Arab world and India came mainly via the Nile Valley and the East African coast, and had little spillover effect further inland. With the exception of the Niger and the Nile, the continent’s rivers with their large waterfalls have not provided a navigable route to the interior, in contrast to the rivers of Europe and Asia. The problems of...
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