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 G8, 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 percent of the level of East Asian and Pacific developing countries, and less than 25 percent 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 enrollment in primary, secondary and higher education, SSA countries stood 19 percent below the average for developing countries, 11 percent below South Asian countries, 29 percent below East Asia and the Pacific and 32 percent below Latin America and the Caribbean.
What accounts for this broad-based underdevelopment? Until the late 1800s, 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.
During the burst of imperial expansion in Africa that followed national integration and trade liberalization in Europe, colonial powers showed little interest in delineating colonial national boundaries based on cultural or ethnic considerations; they cared only about raw materials and markets. The Berlin Conference of 1885 fixed the borders of Europe's African colonies so that they included within them a large variety of languages, religions, and ethnic groups.
Most SSA countries attained national independence some time after the end of the World War II, as the British, French, Belgian, and Portuguese empires unraveled (Germany had already lost its colonies after 1918). Thus, SSA countries have only enjoyed independence for a short period in comparison with, say, South America, where countries had their wars of independence around 1810 to 1820 and achieved some type of constitutional government by 1850 to 1880.
The legacy of arbitrarily drawn borders and limited political centralization meant that in many SSA countries remnants of the colonial experience continue to play a big role in defining the institutional landscape, such as the civil service and public administration, educational system and economic infrastructure. To be sure, many countries adopted English, French, or Portuguese as their official languages, and European missionaries, who often followed in the colonizers' footsteps, had success in transmitting their religious practices to local populations.
Nevertheless, linguistic variety and ethnic divisions remain more important than in most of the developing world, and tribal affiliation has continued to hinder the emergence of unifying national identities. Moreover, self-rule has not brought many democratically elected regimes. Instead, anti-colonial liberation leaders often developed personality cults and hogged power for decades.