What Africa can learn from medieval Europe

2 October 2013

The Economist

Over the last few decades, Africa's failure to achieve rapid growth has puzzled economists. GDP statistics clearly show that African economies have failed to converge with Europe's since the Second World War.

While GDP per capita in constant terms almost quintupled in Western Europe between 1950 and 2008, it only doubled in Africa in the same period. Some African countries have not simply failed to catch up with Europe but have fallen behind in absolute terms. GDP per capita in countries like the Central African Republic, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have fallen over this same period.

Many scholars still blame the continent's economic woes on the legacy of western colonialism. But a new paper­ by Stephen Broadberry and Leigh Gardner, both at the London School of Economics, seeks to find a new answer to this old question by comparing trends in contemporary Africa to Europe's development experience over the last 800 years.

Africa's failure to develop, they argue, should not be seen as the exception, but as the historical norm. Africa's growth trends since 1950-overall stagnation with periods of growth and decline-appear incredibly similar, both in terms of patterns and level, to those of pre-modern Europe. It took European countries until the 1800s to exceed Africa's current per capita output. Humanity all over the world, for the vast majority of its history, has been at least as poor as Africa today.

Although Africa went through periods of economic growth in the 1950s, 1960s, late-1980s and the 2000s, these growth spurts were off-set by "growth reversals" in the 1970s, early-1980s and the 1990s, when GDP fell. Similar patterns can be seen in pre-modern economic history, when falling per capita GDP figures in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries wiped out earlier gains.

The question that Mr Broadberry and Ms Gardner then ask is how did Europe escape from these growth reversals. They see institutional factors-most notably the introduction of democracy and the development of state capacity for growth- as the threshold conditions met in Europe, but that have generally not been in Africa.

For instance, as Douglass North and Barry Weingast have argued, constitutional reforms after the Glorious Revolution of 1689 enabled these conditions to be met in Britain, producing growth in the eighteenth century that was never reversed. Increased parliamentary control over the executive and a "credible commitment" to pay back the public debt encouraged public and private investment which, they say, produced sustainable growth.

Europe's wider economic "take-off" in the nineteenth century can be seen in a similar light. The creation of strong and stable states in nineteenth-century Europe enabled investment in canals and railways, which increased growth rates there. The development of professional civil services and judiciaries, where promotion was based on merit rather than corruption, also helped too.

These types of reforms contributed towards creating "open access" societies where all groups of the population have equal opportunity to access state services, such as the courts system to enforce property rights.

Mr Broadberry and Ms Gardner argue that failure to fulfill these threshold conditions in most African countries have resulted in them being trapped in the cyclical pattern of growth reversals seen over the last 60 years. They argue policy makers should encourage the growth of "civil society" in order to escape from the threat growth reversals still pose to Africa's current phase of growth.

But perhaps other lessons could be learned from this sort of economic history as well, aside from the importance of good institutions for growth. Social conditions could also be important in explaining development.

Both modern Africa and medieval Europe suffered growth reversals after long-lasting epidemics: after HIV/AIDS hit Africa and after bubonic plague spread into Europe. Perhaps higher expenditure on healthcare and preventative measures against future epidemics could boost growth. And as growth took off in Europe after the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass literacy, higher spending on education may matter too.

New explanations of underdevelopment are putting increasing stress on sociological factors as well. "Pro-poor policies", which boost economic aspirations, might also be an effective way of kick starting economic growth in third-world countries. Theories like these may go some of the way to explaining why growth took off fastest in north-west Europe where the destruction of feudal structures that prevented social mobility occurred first.

How far institutions were involved in these complex processes is a moot point. What is clear is that Europe's pre-modern economic history has much to s ay about development in third world countries today-but institutions may only proove to be one part of a bigger picture.

­S. N. Broadberry, and L. A. Gardner. "Africa's Growth Prospects in a European Mirror: A Historical Perspective". The CAGE-Chatham House Series, No. 5. February 2013.

Category: General

Subscribe to our Newsletter

This week's must-sees

Interviews, article, discussions, news of the week

Each Friday, at 8PM (Paris GMT), the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA) selects for you the moments you should not miss

To subscribe: p.wolmer@afdb.org

Subscribe now

You are currently offline. Some pages or content may fail to load.