A few weeks ago, I spoke at a conference on the history of poverty. I talked about my most recent book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, which describes how sources of energy, forms of social organization and systems of values have co-evolved across the past 20,000 years. Things seemed to be going well until an eminent political scientist posed a question that completely floored me: "What about Africa?" I must have looked puzzled, because he elaborated. "Africa doesn't fit any of what you've been saying. African development is stuck. How do you explain that?"
One reason for my confusion was that not long before, I had attended a different conference where an equally eminent demographer had argued that Africa is anything but stuck. In fact, he suggested, Africa is now coming into its own, and the next 100 years will be the African century.
The more I have thought about these conflicting claims, the more I have come to realize that I am not the only one who is confused. Estimates of sub-Saharan Africa's performance and potential are polarized between glass-half-full and glass-half-empty visions, each mustering its own data to make us rejoice or despair over Africa's prospects. The fact that such highly respected scholars can come to such wildly different conclusions suggests to me that we need a new perspective. And, as is so often true, I believe that long-term history can provide it.
One Story, Two Interpretations
Let's start with a quick look at the facts to which the two schools of thought appeal. The glass-half-empty perspective usually starts with the observation that sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest place on Earth. According to the International Monetary Fund's 2015 World Economic Outlook, the average gross domestic product across the planet as a whole is $10,023 per person. Only one sub-Saharan country beats this — Equatorial Guinea, at $12,541 per person — and the 11 lowest-ranking countries of the 186 surveyed are all African, ranging from a miserable $315 to $582 per person. Manufacturing still accounts for roughly the same percentage of sub-Saharan Africa's GDP as it did in the 1970s, and where there has been economic growth, the gains have flowed disproportionately to small elite classes. Corruption is rampant: Since Transparency International began publishing its Corruption Perceptions Index in 1995, African countries have consistently filled between eight and 10 of the bottom 20 spots.
The educational scene is just as dismal. Barely two-thirds of children in sub-Saharan Africa receive any primary schooling at all, and only one-third of the lucky ones are girls. In Uganda, a mere 13 percent of education spending actually reaches schools, and the typical Tanzanian teacher turns up for work just 23 percent of the time.
Health care is no better. AIDS and Ebola may be down but they are not out, and 90 percent of the world's malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In Chad, less than 1 percent of non-wage health spending reaches medical clinics, and Tanzanian doctors see patients for just 29 minutes per day on average.
Governance is often atrocious, too. Not every African president is a Robert Mugabe, let alone an Idi Amin, but only 21 percent of incumbents who lost elections between 1960 and 2010 left their posts without a fight. There have been more than 200 coups in Africa in the past 50 years, and it is probably the most violent continent on earth. The on-again, off-again civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which began in 1996, has claimed 5 million lives — about 15 to 20 times as many as the Syrian civil war.
But for every gloomy fact on the half-empty side of the ledger, optimists can counter with a half-full finding.
These are damning statistics, and plenty of journalists have described the misery inflicted on the lives of Africans. But for every gloomy fact on the half-empty side of the ledger, optimists can counter with a half-full finding. First, they often point out, sub-Saharan Africa is not homogeneous. For every Malawi or Democratic Republic of the Congo developing at a glacial pace, there is a booming Botswana or Nigeria. And even if we do lump the entire region south of the Sahara together, we must also recognize that its economies have grown faster than those of any other continent in the past decade, averaging 5-6 percent per year.
Furthermore, the pattern of growth is widely distributed: Two-thirds of sub-Saharan countries have seen growth rates between 4 and 6 percent. Africa's economies have grown faster than East Asia's in eight of the past 10 years, and economists regularly compare sub-Saharan Africa's takeoff since 2000 with China's ascent since the 1980s. True, corruption remains terrible, but it is at least moving in the right direction: The average sub-Saharan score (out of 100) on the Corruption Perceptions Index improved from 27.1 in 2009 to 30.3 in 2014. And the bottom line, the optimists point out, is that according to the World Bank's calculations, gross national income per person tripled between 2002 and 2014.
Similarly, while sub-Saharan Africans have the world's worst public services on average, the proportion of children going to primary school did rise from 54 percent in 1998 to 69 percent in 2013, and by 2020 nearly half of all Africans will have at least some secondary education. Since 2000, deaths from malaria have fallen by nearly half and life expectancy at birth has risen from 50 to 57 years. By 2035, Africa should be enjoying a huge demographic dividend, with the ratio of workers to dependents at an all-time high.
Governance is the area where sub-Saharan Africa has shown the least improvement, but even so, the average score (out of 10) for sub-Saharan countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index nudged up from 4.24 in 2006 to 4.34 in 2014. Peaceful transitions after elections are becoming more common, while coups become less so. According to the Peace Research Institute Oslo's classification, 12 wars raged in sub-Saharan Africa in 1982, but by 2012, the number had fallen to five.
These are happy numbers, inspiring plenty of rags-to-riches (or at least extreme-poverty-to-middling-income) stories. Still, it is hard to avoid concluding that optimists and pessimists alike are cherry-picking the data. Sometimes there even seem to be political motives behind their choices as analysts strive to show that globalization, colonialism and/or the United States have been forces for either good or evil. That said, these distortions would not be options at all were it not for the fact that sub-Saharan Africa has seen such a peculiar pattern of development, mixing stagnation and dynamism in almost equal measure. This is what needs to be explained.
A Different Pace of Early Development
The moment we put sub-Saharan Africa's recent history into a long-term perspective, we see that the half-full and half-empty hypotheses are both wrong. African development is not stuck, but the next 100 years will not be the African century either.
Throughout the bulk of human history, Africa was home to the most developed societies on Earth, for the simple reason that mankind's story began millions of years earlier in Africa than anywhere else. The evolutionary branch leading toward modern humans split off from the branches leading to the other great apes around 7.5 million years ago, mainly because the savannahs around the edge of the Central African rainforest produced selective pressures that rewarded the random genetic mutations leading to bigger brains.
By 1.8 million years ago, a species of pre-humans that anthropologists call Homo erectus ("upright man") or Homo ergaster ("working man") was emerging in eastern and southern Africa. It had a distinctly bigger brain than other human-like apes, looked somewhat like us, could probably create fire at will and might have been capable of something resembling speech. So successful were these African ape-men that Homo erectus/ergaster spread all over the continent and beyond, reaching what is now Indonesia within 100,000 years.
As the migrants colonized new environments, they came under new selective pressures, leading to fresh mutations that slowly turned them into entirely new species. Some of these species, particularly the Neanderthals that evolved (probably in Europe) around 250,000 years ago, might have had more complex societies than any in contemporary Africa. However, for reasons that remain controversial, our own sub-species of Homo sapiens began evolving in eastern and southern Africa about 200,000-150,000 years ago. By 100,000 years ago, we modern humans had become dramatically more clever than any other kind of human, and the communities we created in Africa were far more sophisticated than anything that premodern humans had set up in Asia or Europe. Once again, success generated geographical expansion; as modern humans spread from the African homeland across Eurasia, all other species of proto-humans went extinct. By 20,000 B.C. at the latest, Homo sapiens had inherited the Earth.
Like the various kinds of pre-humans, we reacted in new ways as we colonized new environments, but with one important difference: We modern humans were so brainy that we could respond to new circumstances by changing our culture and behavior rather than by waiting tens of thousands of years for our bodies to evolve genetically. And so, for instance, when we began invading Siberia some 60,000 years ago, we learned to sew animal skins into fitted clothes instead of halting until we evolved to be hairier.
So far as we can tell, until the world warmed up and grew moister as the last ice age drew to a close about 15,000 years ago, African societies remained just as organizationally sophisticated as the groups that had migrated to Asia and Europe. At that point, though, the domestication of plants and animals became possible and changed everything. Potentially domesticable plants and animals were clustered most densely along two bands of what I like to call the "lucky latitudes," one running from China to the Mediterranean in the Old World and another from Mexico to Peru in the New World. Farming began around 9600 B.C. in the Near East, because that was where resources were most plentiful, and over the next 3,000 years it was independently reinvented all along the lucky latitudes — but not in Africa, because the scarcity of domesticable resources in humanity's original homeland made it much harder to invent farming there.
Genetically, the humans in the lucky latitudes and those in Africa were almost identical, but once the former began farming, they pulled further and further ahead of the latter.
Genetically, the humans in the lucky latitudes and those in Africa were almost identical, but once the former began farming, they pulled further and further ahead of the latter. Farming drove up population sizes, which required people to organize themselves in more complex ways. Organization produced more sophisticated divisions of labor, greater wealth and enormous military power. Farming set off an inexorable spiral of increasing scale and complexity. Typically, it took societies 2,000-4,000 years to go from the beginnings of agriculture to full-blown farming villages, then another 1,500-4,000 years to transform from farming villages to early states with governments, cities and usually writing, and finally another 1,500-2,500 years to go from early states to huge multiethnic empires.
That said, sub-Saharan Africa was hardly a wasteland, and some regions did contain domesticable plants and animals. The Sahel grasslands along the southern edge of the great desert, where the wild precursors of sorghum, some kinds of rice and millet, groundnuts, yams and watermelons had all evolved, probably had the richest resources. However, because these resources were less dense than in the lucky latitudes, the first steps toward farming began only after 5000 B.C., by which time the societies of the Near East already had a head start of several millennia.
Catching Up to the Rest of the World
From that point onward, African development proceeded on roughly the same timetable as the lucky latitudes. In the Near East, where the first steps toward farming began around 9500 B.C., states were emerging in Mesopotamia and Egypt by 3500 B.C. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous states took shape only between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 around Jenne-jeno in the Niger Valley, Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe near the Zambezi River, and the kingdom of Kongo in Angola. By then, of course, the societies in Eurasia's lucky latitudes had developed further still, and as they did they expanded geographically, pressing into the territories of less developed societies.
If someone had built a wall around Africa in 2000 B.C., cutting it off from the rest of the planet, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that its societies would have kept developing on the same schedule. By 2015, sub-Saharan Africa would have had big, complex states with literate elites, and by 3000 it might well have had empires like ancient Rome. But in the real world, where there was no one to build such a wall, the older, more developed societies of the Near East and Mediterranean steadily encroached on Africa, cutting off indigenous paths of development as they did so.
Egypt's pharaohs were already advancing into Nubia (modern Sudan) by 2000 B.C. Around 500 B.C., Phoenicians from modern Lebanon circumnavigated the continent. By A.D. 600, Byzantium and Sasanian Persia were competing to dominate Ethiopia, and by A.D. 1000, Arab traders had brought Islam across the Sahara Desert and as far down the coast of East Africa as Mozambique. After A.D. 1400, Europeans established toeholds along Africa's shores as they searched for slaves, gold and the legendary king Prester John, widely believed to rule a huge Christian empire somewhere in Africa.
These incursions forcibly integrated slivers of Africa into systems dominated by the more developed societies of the lucky latitudes, but only after 1850 did guns, medicine and transportation reach such levels that Europeans could project power into the continent's interior. For both good and ill, they then began incorporating Africa into the modern global economy. As a result, Africans have been yanked through 20 or 30 centuries' worth of social development in a mere 150 years. No societies in history have ever changed as much and as quickly as Africa's are now.
This long-term history shows that it is absurd to say that African development is stuck. The optimists are right to insist that the changes that have swept Africa since 1850 have been bewilderingly rapid, and that the pace of transformation has accelerated even more since 2000. South of the Sahara, all fixed, fast-frozen relations are swept away; all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. And all that is solid melts into air.
And yet the pessimists are also right to note that some aspects of African life remain firmly rooted in premodern ways. How could they not? Leaping across millennia in the space of five generations could never be anything but traumatic, inspiring resistance, reaction and often violence.
We should expect both these patterns to continue for the foreseeable future — the rapid incorporation of Africa into the modern world system on the one hand, and the persistence of premodern structures on the other — simultaneously generating prosperity and conflict. The next 100 years will not be Africa's century, but neither will they see the continent stagnate and fall behind the Northern Hemisphere. History never works that simply.