Cover Image
close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder10. Africa in the 21st Century: Sunrise or sunset?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe causes of poverty
View the documentHistorical causes of the current situation
View the documentWars are environmentally unfriendly
View the documentEvolution of environmental management in Africa
View the documentOld and new development models

The causes of poverty

There is widespread belief that some of the more critical problems experienced by African countries are related to the frequent natural catastrophies (mainly droughts) and wars. In some cases, there is an element of truth to this interpretation, but in many others the issues are much more complex, and the causes must be found elsewhere.

The notions of drought and aridity are only partially related to meteorological data. In the “arid” countries, such as those of the Sahara and Kalahari regions, drought is an elusive concept. Arid climates are dry by definition, and in most cases irregularity of rainfall is normal. Therefore, years of little rain cannot be called “drought” years; dry years are part of predictable climatic patterns to which pastoral and oasis societies have adapted for a long time. If no external factors are introduced, traditional production and social systems tend to survive these “drier” periods without major problems.

In semi-arid countries where pastoral activities are combined with planting of rain-fed crops, the occurrence of arid spells has been traditionally mitigated by trade with more humid neighbouring regions. When dry periods extended beyond a certain period, conflicts arose, but this was more the exception than the rule. In brief, drought is not the root cause of African poverty and other problems, it only exacerbates them.

Wars present a different problem. They have become all too frequent in Africa. In most cases, they are a main cause of some of the more desperate situations. They can bring economic activities to a halt production systems are reduced, distribution of goods is disrupted, and social systems can be seriously damaged or even destroyed. Nevertheless, wars are a consequence of the African situation, not its basic cause.

From an economic point of view, the main apparent reason for African “underdevelopment” is its low levels of production, measured in terms of both gross domestic product (GDP) and exports. In fact, with few exceptions, exports and GDPs of African countries have been decreasing consistently over the last few decades. This has been coupled with sustained and widespread demographic growth. When GDP decreases and population increases, per-capita income shrinks, reducing the availability of financial resources for both the state and the population.

A second element in this “image of poverty” relates to the gradual fall of international trade figures for the continent. The decrease in exports appears to be a result of a complex array of factors. One such factor is the decline in the terms of exchange for traditional African products, such as cocoa, copra, cotton, and palm kernels. Between 1977 and 1989, cocoa prices fell from $5.41 to $0.94 per kilogram; copra from $574.7 to $264.7 per tonne; cotton from $2.22 to $1.27 per kilogram; and palm kernels from $466 to $190.9 per tonne. Another factor is the disappearance of markets for these products, frequently because of changes in consumption trends. On the other hand, it is also a by-product of a widespread loss of competitiveness, mainly because of the dislocation of national production or commercialization systems, and of inadequate use of natural resources.

Population growth

Persistent increases in the population exacerbate the other factors. In most African countries, population growth is over 2% annually; in some, it reaches 3.5% or more; for example, Cote d’Ivoire, 3.78%; Kenya, 3.58%; Uganda, 3.67%; and Zambia, 3.75%. The overall average for Africa is 2.98%, higher than any other continent. This is due to continuing high birthrates and decreasing death rates.

Population pressure has been one of the main forces promoting the various environmental degradation processes. Overgrazing, overcultivation, excessive or inappropriate use of water resources, deforestation, and elimination of natural ecosystems are, among other reasons, a direct result of overpopulation for existing forms of production and land-occupation systems.

Political upheaval

Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be engaged in a continuing series of conflicts between national and tribal groups. This political instability weakens the economies of the countries, affects the production-planning process and is an important factor in preventing populations from overcoming their difficult situation.

In the mid-1990s, open conflicts are continuing, having just started or recently ended in Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan. The recent conflict in Rwanda is a tragic part of this trend. This continuous state of war has made the economic crisis more acute, disrupting production, marketing, and distribution systems and leading to famine, high mortality rates, and other social hardships. To better understand the root causes of the African situation, however, we must go back in history to the early beginnings of humankind.