African colonization & independence

In case you need a quick reference for a country’s colonial history and date of independence, here’s a useful map, via Cherokee Gothic.


Unfortunately it does have a few errors.  It doesn’t mention the earlier German colonization of Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, and wrongly lists Namibia as gaining independence from Germany in 1990.  Namibian colonial rule was transferred from Germany to South Africa in 1919, and the country became independent from South Africa in 1990.  (Thanks to Charles Tellier, Jakob Haentjes and Danny Wijnhoud for pointing this out.)  The map also suggests that Liberia was never colonized, which isn’t true – the modern state was founded by the American Colonization Society as a refuge for former slaves.  (Thanks for Matt Jones for this one.)


The colonization counterfactual

One of the questions I’m often asked by friends who haven’t studied African history is what might have happened to the continent if it hadn’t been colonized.  It’s interesting to look at the following map of African politico-tribal units circa 1844 by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon in the light of this question:

Alkebu-lan[click for full size – it’s worth it!]

I haven’t been able to find any firm documentation on the origin of the name Alkebu-lan, although a variety of questionably sourced websites suggest that it’s an Arabic phrase meaning “land of the blacks” – supposedly an original name for Africa.  Cyon notes in a presentation that the map represents the culmination of an alternate history where the Black Plague killed significantly more Europeans than was actually the case, presumably reducing the amount of early colonization which would have occurred.  Thus, while many of these territorial groupings appear feasible to me, it’s unclear if they represent the real extent of various ethnic groups in 1844.

What might have happened from 1845 onwards in this non-colonial world?  The most densely populated areas in west and central Africa might have grown into something approaching Westphalian sovereignty, controlling clearly defined territories (as per Jeffrey Herbst’s thesis on state formation in States and Power in Africa).  Coastal and riverine areas may have done well off of trade, encouraging the development of stronger local authorities.  Places rich in natural resources would have had to fend off various external claimants to their territories, if not from Europe (or India) then perhaps from neighboring kingdoms, and might have developed into stronger states if successful or faced the imposition of external institutions if not.  But what of places like the land alloted to the Herero in this map (modern Namibia), which is largely desert?  Or the semi-arid plains of the Sahel?  Perhaps they would have continued with smaller or more mobile sociopolitical groups, without a central state.  Whether they would have been vulnerable to expansionary neighbors is unclear.  And all of this doesn’t even touch on whether European economic development would have followed the same path, and whether colonization might have eventually occurred anyway, at least to the weaker or less populous states.  A fascinating thought experiment, though.

A different look at global income inequality

Something that has long struck me about modern discourses on international development is the idea that poverty is somehow shocking, an aberrance in our age of wealth.  It’s not!  Plenty of people in the world live in the way that humans have lived for most of history.  If anything, it is the wealth of the developed West that is profoundly and ahistorically abnormal.

Worldmapper has some good maps of population and wealth through history that offer a bit of perspective on this topic.  Data for year 1 CE was taken from Angus Maddison’s historical estimates of the world economy.  Check out these maps of estimated population and wealth at this time:

Population, 1 CE (source)

Wealth, 1 CE (source)

You’ll note that the maps are virtually identical, reflecting the facts that per capita GDP (imputed to modern territories, as these states obviously didn’t exist in 1 CE) varied extremely little around the world.  Maddison has estimated it at an average of $445 annually per person.

Now check out population and wealth in 2000:

Population, 2000 CE (source)

Wealth, 2002 CE (source)

Hello disparities!  Latin America is the only region where wealth appears to have grown roughly commensurately with population.  The US, Europe and Japan, of course, are looking a bit bloated, whilst most of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be doing worse (relative to the rest of the world) than it was 2000 years ago.  Average global per capita GDP in 2000 was about $5200, meaning that even the massive population growth of the last two millennia has not prevented the world’s citizens from growing (on average) more than ten times as rich as they were in 1 CE.

It should go without saying that the conclusions one can actually draw from a set of maps drawn with imputed data is limited.  However, I still find it useful to have a reminder that we shouldn’t assume the normalcy or inevitability of the world as we see it today.

Don Alvaro, King of Kongo

It’s interesting to remember that there was a pre-colonial time when the European imagination hadn’t yet essentialized Africa into a land of savages.  I purchased the image below – a reprint of an engraving from a 1668 book on African exploration – on a trip to South Africa last year, intrigued by seeing a European artist using European symbols of power to demonstrate the position of an African king.  (In other words, he is rather reasonably providing an accessible visual interpretation of African “power” for his audience.)  Note the Latin inscription “Don Alvarez, Rex Kongo” and the elegant European-style interior:

“Don Alvaro, king of Kongo, giving audience to the Dutch in 1642”

The Kingdom of Kongo, as it turns out, had a long and fascinating pre-colonial history.  From origins just south of Matadi (in the present-day DRC), it expanded to cover an area from the north of (modern-day) Angola to the south of the Republic of Congo, and remained extent as a political entity from roughly 1400 to 1914.  Its territory was divided into anywhere from 6-15 provinces and sub-provinces, with provincial rulers taxing local trade and paying revenues upward to the king.  In the early 17th century, the population of its capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and the surrounding hinterland was estimated at 100,000 people.

So whence this engraving?  The Portuguese came into contact with the Kongo in 1483, when Diogo Cao made his famous voyage up the Congo River.  Subsequent relations seem to have ranged from amicable to strategic to hostile, mostly centered around the slave trade and factional struggles for the throne of Kongo.  By the 1600s, however, the Dutch were competing with the Portuguese for the spice trade, and they captured Luanda from the Portuguese in 1641.  In 1642, Kongo agreed to provide them with military assistance, and in return the Dutch helped the then-king of Kongo, Garcia II, put down a rebellion in the south.  (Garcia’s predecessor, who died in 1641, was Alvaro IV.  Presumably either the name or the year in the print above is incorrect.)

Kongo held out, through wars, factional struggles, and a post-Berlin wave of Portuguese colonialism, until 1914.  But even today, the kingdom’s afterlife continues.  The DRC-based religico-political group Bundu dia Kongo has pressed for a revival of the Kongo culture and kingdom since the late 1960s, and has gotten attention more recently for demonstrating against (and being brutally suppressed by) the Kabila regime.

Development wishlist

One of the fun parts of doing the job hunt/grad school application thing is that it gives you a structured opportunity to articulate what you’d like to see the development community doing, and how you’d like to participate in it.  After straining out all the things that will actually be going into personal statements, everything that’s left is being added to my only moderately unrealistic economic development wishlist:

  • I want to see more economic development practitioners talking to economic historians. There’s a strong share of immediacy in much dialogue on international economic development – the demand to stop dithering and end poverty now.  I think this is a moderately useful moral statement, and a nearly useless policy formulation for engendering broad & sustainable increases in the incomes of the poor.  Frankly, it promotes a strain of analysis that approaches successful, present-day Western economic policies as if they developed in a vacuum, and often gives short shrift to the historical quirks, accidents, and forethought that went into their development – the messy, long-term process of actualizing beneficial policy.  I’d love to see more practitioners drawing from research into historical processes of economic development (such as De Soto’s work on the Homestead Act in the US), and much less poorly-considered application of Western present-day policies to non-Western situations.  (Another great example is Roodman’s work on microfinance in Europe & the US as long ago as 1800.  Which brings me to my next point…)
  • I want to discourse on innovation balanced with discourse on not reinventing the wheel. I’m obviously not anti-innovation.  People are doing some great thinking on how the constraints of poverty both necessitate and facilitate innovation.  But I’ve also come to realize that, if you’re a smart & dedicated person and have an innovative idea, there’s a significant chance that at least one other smart & dedicated person has had a similar idea.  At this point in your promotion of said innovative idea, you (generally) could A) seek out other people working on it and collaborate, B) learn about the shortcomings of the other idea and compete with an improved product, or C) independently develop & fund multiple small duplicative non-competing projects based on the same idea.  I don’t mean to pick on stove projects uniquely – I think they’re tackling an important issue, and they were the first example that came to mind rather than the most egregious.  But I do wonder how much of the time & how many of the resources spent on social enterprise product development (or program development more broadly) is genuinely productive, and how much goes to needlessly reinventing the wheel instead of learning from existing examples.  (See also Easterly’s critique of learning in aid programs since 1938.)
  • I want to see less programmatic emphasis on solving every problem simultaneously, and more on sequential implementation in increasing order of difficulty. You could equally rephrase this as, “it’s not always wise to do the hardest thing first.”  There’s a lot of value in starting with a feasible goal, learning by doing, and expanding into implementation of more complex or wide-ranging programs later – and it’s much more likely to be successful.

I’d love to know, dear readers: what’s on your wishlists?