"Even today, Africa remains the least economically free and most protectionist continent in the world. That – and not free trade – is the problem"
Robert Colvile’s excellent article on Prince Charles’s misunderstanding of the causes of African poverty provides a good opportunity to take a closer look at Africa’s economic history.
African poverty was not caused by colonialism, capitalism or free trade. As I havenoted before, many of Europe’s former dependencies became rich precisely because they maintained many of the colonial institutions and partook in global trade. African poverty preceded the continent’s contact with Europe and persists today. That is an outcome of unfortunate policy choices, most of which were freely chosen by Africa’s leaders after independence.
By 1500, a typical European was about twice as rich as a typical African.
Like Europe, Africa started out desperately poor. The late Professor Angus Maddison of Groningen University has estimated that, at the start of the Common Era, average per capita income in Africa was $470 per year (in 1990 dollars). The global average was roughly equal to that of Africa. Western Europe and North Africa, which were parts of the Roman Empire, were slightly better off ($600). In contrast, North America lagged behind Africa ($400). All in all, the world was both fairly equal and very poor.
The origins of global inequality, which saw Western Europe and, later, North America, power ahead of the rest of the world, can be traced to the rise of the Northern Italian city-states in the 14th century and the Renaissance in the 15th century. By 1500, a typical European was about twice as rich as a typical African. But the real gap in living standards opened only after the Industrial Revolution that started in England in the late 18th century and spread to Europe and North America in the 19th century.
In 1870, when Europeans controlled no more than 10 per cent of the African continent (mostly North and South Africa), Western European incomes were already four times higher than those in Africa. Europe, in other words, did not need Africa in order to become prosperous. Europe colonised Africa because Europe was prosperous and, consequently, more powerful. Appreciation of the chronology of events does not justify or defend colonialism. But it does help explain it.