mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Trend #8: Uneven Development and the “African Time Bomb”

The Olympics, like the world, is a complicated field of winners and losers. Some countries win often: the U.S. mens’ 400-meter swimming relay team has won thirteen straight times, a streak going back to 1960. Other countries are accustomed to losing: the Central African Republic has never won any medal. Still other countries win some and lose some, reveling in a particularly good haul one year but then suffering through a slump with few or no medals in the next competition.

Development is like the Olympics. The world is not, as pundits have long liked to say, neatly divided between “developed” and “developing” countries. The reality is far more complex. In 2010 Via Meadia described a development scale of five basic groups: There are regular winners like the United States that remain steady at the top of the pile; others like Brazil that gain ground on the leaders and could one day join them; the mediocre middle that isn’t gaining on the winners but at least isn’t falling behind; failing countries teetering on the precipice; and, dead last, the Somalias of the world.

Against the backdrop of a weak global economy, the past two years has seen both success stories and failures. Despite or perhaps because of its oil wealth, Nigeria is facing what its current president calls its greatest crisis since the Biafran War of secession 35 years ago. The instability resulting from Egypt’s revolution has combined with the weak economic structure inherited from the past to bring Egypt perilously close to economic collapse. Chile and Brazil have found some economic success but still struggle with the politics of capitalism and with the commodities cycle of boom and bust. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are stagnating or falling behind, and Argentina appears to be slouching toward the kind of destabilizing meltdown that became so depressingly familiar in the 20th century. Greece is falling behind, and Turkey has surged, but there are ominous signs ahead. The Congo, Somalia, and too large a group of other states stagnate at the bottom of the pile.

The failures, of course, are more striking, and make front-page news with each new political misstep, economic crash, or violent outburst of unrest. We need not go into the Greek case extensively here, but if anything it is a story of a country betrayed by unsound economic policy and left in the dust of its many EU compatriots—austerity might make things worse, too. Haiti entered the 2010s crumbling—and then the earthquake hit. Things are improving two years on, but there are only a few good signs.

The African Time Bomb is the biggest worry, as most governments in sub-Saharan Africa have not found a workable strategy for development. This is not a problem that will one day explode in a single spectacle. It is rather numerous bombs (by the names of Nigeria, Eritrea, Congo, and others) set with different fuses that make Africa seem like a giant minefield: colonial borders that do not make sense, intermingled ethnic groups, religious friction, inability to set up reliable services like electricity and agriculture, and more.  The rise of Boko Haram is particularly alarming in this respect: in a region of weak states, a transnational group of violent fanatics with outside funding could do a lot of harm.

As Via Meadia pointed out in the original post two years ago, this is a grim picture—and in many cases it is unlikely to improve. Too many governments are woefully unprepared to adapt their institutions and systems to live up to modern demands, and in the absence of an effective, capable government that is committed to the task of national economic development, nobody really knows how to make a poor country much better off. In many cases (like those of Greece and Argentina), cultural factors and historically rooted behavior patters among the people at large mean that voters over and over again choose leaders whose understanding of and commitment to effective policy remains weak.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    “…that make Africa seem like a giant minefield….Too many governments are woefully unprepared to adapt their institutions and systems to live up to modern demands….” WRM, history and cultural patterns mixed with ethnic-tribal-boundary configurations make Trend #8 globally despairing – how is it brought around?

  • gooch mango

    I believe the Westphalian nation-state model is going to collapse and disappear in most of sub-Saharan Africa. It brings more pain and suffering to the people than hope or prosperity.

    Perhaps a city-state model will rise in its place, though that too will likely bring a few decades of ethnic cleansing before the population mix settles into any kind of stable structure.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The success or failure of a nation is dependent on it’s culture. Over the last few decades American Culture (Mankind’s most successful culture, and therefore best) has been getting spread to all of mankind, and is influencing all other cultures. Because of this, world economic growth has exploded over the last few decades, such that world GDP is now $75 Trillion with $15 Trillion of that in import/export trade. Even the backsliding and failed states are still being dragged forward by American Cultural momentum. I would like to remind everyone that most of the world’s cultures are very backward, and that cultural evolution occurs at glacial speeds. If we can get a democratic vote, or just get them to trade with us, that is a major victory, which will lead to more victories.

  • Kris

    “We need not go into the Greek case extensively here”

    No we needn’t, as another Greek already did, over 2500 years ago.

  • mb

    I agree with 99% of what you say, but “colonial boundaries that do not make sense?” Please. Take a map of Africa that shows tribal populations, and try to slice it up into nation/states so that no national boundaries divide any tribe, no nation is dominated by one tribe, no nation is going to be riven by strife between two major tribes, no small tribe is going to be crushed out of existence. (And since the rise of radical Islam, add religion to the mix.)

    Africa’s tribal system does not support division into nice, tidy nation-states of similar size and with comparable resources. Granted, a lot of the colonial boundaries don’t make sense – but it’s really hard to do any better.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service