Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2431

Why is Africa poor?

This article is over 9 years, 6 months old
Ken Olende argues that Africa doesn’t need Bob Geldof’s charity, or anyone else’s - but solidarity in the struggle against the system of poverty that keeps them down
Issue 2431
Kibera shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya
Kibera shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya (Pic: Colin Crowley on Flickr)

Western governments are only concerned about stopping Ebola within their own borders—and the £640 million needed to end the suffering for thousands in Africa has yet to appear.  

Many people see the return of Band Aid as a step in the right direction—at least replacing government callousness with compassion. But for 30 years different versions of the charity have presented recycled racist stereotypes of Africa.

Most Africans are undeniably poor. But Ebola is only a crisis in three countries—Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea—out of more than 50 in the continent.

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recalls racist stereotypes about Africans as backward and passive. The lyrics overtly refer to Africans as “the other ones”.

Supporters of humanitarian aid often talk of poverty, starvation or the spread of disease as unstoppable natural forces. 

Bob Geldof says he wants Band Aid to be non-political­, to raise money to help the desperate. But without raising politics you can never explain why capitalism abandons millions of Africans. 

Over 600,000 people die from malaria each year. Children under five are 15 times more likely to die than in the West.

Any of these problems could be easily solved if Western governments decided to address them.

One commentator has called humanitarians “wide-eyed and gullible extensions of the system causing all the damage.”


Africa is rich in people, resources and agricultural land. But it is currently poor because of the way capitalism has exploited it. 

Its problems began with the Atlantic slave trade, which financed the birth of industrial capitalism (see below). 

This was followed by imperial domination that set up trading patterns designed to benefit the colonisers. 

Most countries emerged from colonialism dependent on one or two crops that the former colonial power promoted for its own interests.

But with independence, most countries invested in education and health care, rather than profits for imperial companies. They invested in industry that would move them away from dependency.

Yet they couldn’t escape the Cold War that led big powers to back “reliable” dictators over radicals that might challenge existing power relations.

And when prices of raw materials plummeted during the recession in the 1970s it devastated economies that were still dependent on them.

This soon led to “advice” from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how to run economies. 

Since the beginning of the 1980s the message has been the same free market mantra. 

The IMF has imposed one structural adjustment programme after another on Africa despite their failure to deliver. 

In the late 1980s it imposed free market reforms on Zimbabwe and trumpeted their success after grain production trebled. 

But, as author Alex de Waal explains in the book Famine Crimes, “National food surpluses did not solve the problem of hunger among those too poor to buy, and 40 percent of communal farmers were in chronic deficit.” 

The IMF has been pleased with its work because many of the countries with the world’s highest economic growth rates are now in Africa.

Sierra Leone had the world’s second highest growth rate in 2013 at 13.3 percent. Liberia was 11th at 8.1 percent. China was 16th on 7.4 percent.

Figures for very poor countries are misleading as they start from such a low level. However, some people are getting very rich. There are 27 billionaires across Africa.

Their position in the economy meant that in most places the ruling elite found themselves in debt to the West. 

But in countries like South Africa and Nigeria we see a ruling class that is prepared to look after its own interests. 

Think of Britain’s ruling class having to decide if its interests will be served by becoming subservient to the EU or the US.

African countries continue to be dominated by imperialism and are part of a wider international system based on competition between the big powers. 

The media and the World Bank agree that the alternative to seeing Africans as helpless victims is to say they are lazy. 


We are told that 50 years after the end of colonial rule these countries should have sorted out their economies. 

But endemic corruption in Africa is not a result of the removal of imperial control. It is a direct result of imperialism and control from above.

An IMF report is happy to say that “many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have now sustained 5–6 percent growth rates for more than a decade”.

It picks out South Africa as the flip side of this. It blames “tense industrial relations”. That means workers demanding a share.

The effects of this growth have been highly uneven. The US National Bureau of Economic Research points out that the poor saw “their economic situation worsen” but “the rich do not seem to get poorer”.

It is ironic that those who call on neoliberalism as a solution appear not to notice that it goes along with a lack of democracy and local control. 

The imposition of neoliberalism has led to many of the functions of the state being taken over by NGOs. 

Initially many local activists saw NGOs as empowering for local communities. 

But, as Zimbabwean activist John Bomba told the book African Struggles Today, this can “disarm the movement that was emerging from the ground and shift people’s focus from the real battles to some very fantastical arenas”. 

Africa has been made poor by capitalist exploitation from the Atlantic slave trade through imperial exploitation, colonialism, imposed debt and structural adjustment. 

The support that the mass of workers and peasants who live in poverty need is in escaping from the system that keeps them down.

West’s ‘predatory economy caused trade to stagnate’

Before the start of the Atlantic slave trade nobody thought of Africa as a poor continent. 

Its population lived in all kinds of different societies. These ranged from authoritarian empires to anarchic villages answering to no external authority.

It was—and still is—a fertile continent, rich in minerals. And Europe’s rulers knew all about Africa’s riches.

The Catalan Atlas from Spain in 1375 shows a black king on one map. It says, “This Black lord is called Musa Mali, Lord of the Black people of Mali. 

“So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.”

It is referring to Mansa,  “emperor”, Musa the first, who ruled west Africa’s Malian Empire at the time. 

His legendary wealth came from the empire’s production of salt and gold. 

His subjects built many mosques throughout the empire, many of which are still standing. 

The vision of Africa as an unchanging “dark continent” also fails to picture the extensive farming that existed before the slave trade. 

The vast demand for slaves to work the plantations of the Americas created “predatory” economies. 

Many societies had included some form of slavery, but now hunting slaves became their reason to be.

“The predatory economy caused trade between town and country to stagnate and therefore affected the relationship between them,” the Unesco General History of Africa explains. 

“Previously their activities and produce had been complementary. 

“Towns had broken the vicious cycle of subsistence farming, deepened the division of labour and contained the seeds of a new society. 

“It was urban industries and crafts that had stimulated large scale agriculture, stock-breeding, fishing and hunting.”

The continent has never recovered from this devastating blow.

The Atlantic slave trade kickstarted the system of capitalism in the West. And it partly did this by pushing Africa deep into poverty.

Read more…

Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa

by Alex de Waal (£16.99)

Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation

by Patrick Bond (£13.99)

African Struggles Today

by Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig (£12.99)

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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