Friday, June 3, 2011

Ethnic divisions: Africa and elsewhere

Why is most of Africa so poor? One popular theory blames European colonial powers for dividing the continent into arbitrary states, paying no attention to the ethnic groups or tribes who lived there. Ancient ethnic enemies were forced into one state, tribes were carved in two by irrational borders. There followed decades of dreadful ethnic war.

The puzzling thing about this point is how rarely it is applied to developed countries. The presumption seems to be that African ethnic groups cannot live in harmony with one another within the borders of political states. Yet the same idea applied to developed countries is often derided as racist.

Supposedly Hutu and Tutsi cannot live in peace together in Rwanda, but both may settle happily into Parisian suburbs. Muslims and Christians cannot share Sudan, but they can share Bradford. I'm not sure why the difference in views here but it seems contradictory. Either ethnic groups can live together in peace and prosperity, or they cannot.


  1. My personal view (libertarian), is that Africa has very powerful governments.In many countries, a dictator tended to favour his relatives and members of his ethnic group while subjugating others. Maybe a more decentralised system might have worked better where ethnic groups got relative autonomy over their regions. For examples, I would give India and South Africa. South Africa has divided its provinces on ethnic lines with each province having a majority language. And in India, we have 23 official languages and we have 20 states that are based on linguistic lines.

  2. Good point Rohan. In the "winner takes all" scenario of a corrupt government with strong ethnic loyalties, it is immediately in the interests of all ethnic groups to make sure their man takes control.

    I suppose this raises more questions. Why did so many African countries become dictatorships? Other former colonies in Europe and Asia developed into fairly healthy democracies.


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