The effect of the TseTse fly on African development

Marcella Alsan has a new paper in the American Economic Review:

The TseTse fly is unique to Africa and transmits a parasite harmful to humans and lethal to livestock. This paper tests the hypothesis that the TseTse reduced the ability of Africans to generate an agricultural surplus historically. Ethnic groups inhabiting TseTse-suitable areas were less likely to use domesticated animals and the plow, less likely to be politically centralized, and had a lower population density. These correlations are not found in the tropics outside of Africa, where the fly does not exist. The evidence suggests current economic performance is affected by the TseTse through the channel of precolonial political centralization.

You will find ungated versions here.


It's interesting, but it just doesn't stick. The problem in Africa is governance, not TseTse flies!

Governance isn't exogenous, so what caused the bad governance?

A recent article in the Atlantic suggests that White flight has ravaged the Mississippi delta. Maybe same problem here.

Since my grandmother grew up in the Delta, on the Arkansas side, that article was pretty nuts and ahistorical. There were never all that many whites in the Delta, though a lot more on the right (AR/LA) bank than the left (MS) because the land value was so high. Much of the white population was made up of skilled workers for the big planters, my own great grandfather was a machinist, I have quite a few friends mostly Jewish, but also Italians and Lebanese, whose great grandparents ran company stores or were employed in accounting. As technology allowed skilled workers and planters to live further away they very quickly did. The Delta is a horrible place to live just as an environment. Anywhere even the slightest bit up country is better. Other than fisherfolk and the few white farmers on the West bank, everyone who could buy a car moved up out of the Delta. Even Jackson is a huge improvement. In fact much of the black population moved to, usually North as fast as they could, but also into the upcountry as mechabization reduced the need for labor.

It is well known that White people are to blame for poor schools and poor local governments. Because when they flee crime and violence aimed at them, they also cease to be active in the PTA and local political groups.

The OCR ought to ban White Flight.

It only took three comments to get racist! The commentariat is losing it's edge!

Where is the racism precisely?

Yup!. For those with the inclination to explore decay, and the patience to do so, search back to a much earlier discussion on MR about the impact of tse tse fly on development in eastern and southern africa. Insightful, detailed, analytical, with lots of interesting contributions by the commentators. You could actually learn here.

When the Portuguese started to explore African Atlantic coast they settled in the kingdom of Kongo (modern day Northern Angola and parts of DRC).

The Kongo happened to be located in TseTse affected zone, however it was one of the most developed countries in Africa with a very advanced centralized power, the Southern part of modern day Angola did not have TseTse and people living there were famous for they skills taking care of cattle but their region was much less developed than Kongo.

Slaves were way more important in the development of intensive agriculture than animals, that’s the sad truth.

Slave trade became so important in 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that ultimately destroyed African kingdoms and its institutions because their leaders became greedy and along with their slave trading allies transformed their own people into the most important commodity of that time, Africans became the “original black gold” and that’s the root of African demise, the continent had its chance to redefine their history after WWII but the first batch of leaders went from freedom fighters to aggressive dictators… lack of inclusive governance is holding back Africa, not nature.

P.S.: I’m African and I live in Africa.

Though anecdotal, I appreciate the perspective - thanks JC.

@ Alistair - "Governance isn’t exogenous, so what caused the bad governance?" - I believe the scientific consensus is that most of the world population outside of Africa descends from a single African tribe that left Africa about 100,000 years ago, and then had some breeding with the Neanderthal population who were previous migrants. Thus the African population consists of a much more diverse population (in the sense of genes) than the out of Africa population. If genes are somewhat determining of behavior and then culture (how could they not be?) then we should expect a much wider range of cultures or ways of organizing societies in Africa than outside Africa. Some of these ways are bound to look less successful to us who are more monocultural out of Africa types just because there are more of them. I am making this comment without judgement since to me there is no obvious ranking between say working in a small close knit community farm in Kenya versus a Korean car factory. In fact many Africans seem to me (and to reported international happiness surveys) to be happier than people outside of Africa.

Maybe governance is the problem with modern Africa, but in the past it was not so much: Africa's governance was no worse than the rest of the world's.

"Africa’s governance was no worse than the rest of the world’s."

What do you base that statement upon?

Have you read European history? Even within still living memory some ghastly stuff happened in Europe. Go back far enough and the rulers of Europe were essentially men (and a very few women) with the morals and intelligence of mafia dons, and a bunch of fancy, often expensive, rituals. It's impossible to come away from, say, a history of the War of the Roses and conclude that medieval England was a well governed nation.

The island of Ukara in Lake Victoria was traditionally free of both tse-tse flies and the large wild animals that also make life difficult for farmers. It was densely populated and the locals worked much harder and in a more organized fashion than their neighbors on the mainland. It was kind of like a little chunk of Asia in the middle of Africa:

That was then, this is now. Lord's Resistance Army has probably overrun that place. I was doing OK with a small investment in a gold mining company there (Banro) until things fell apart. Oh well, that's Africa....TIA

LRA in the middle of Lake Victoria???. No wonder you lost money in a "small gold mining company there". That's like an African saying, "I lost money in a bridge selling company in a place called Brooklyn. That's America for you." Yes it is Ray, Yes it is.

I was about to make a similar point. The relevant comparison is not "tropics outside Africa" but "regions of Africa without the tse-tse". You can't hold all-else-equal using other continents.

"I was about to make a similar point. The relevant comparison is not “tropics outside Africa” but “regions of Africa without the tse-tse”. You can’t hold all-else-equal using other continents. "

The issue with that comparison is that the regions of Africa with significant rain fall tend to have significant tse-tse infestations. So there aren't many African areas to compare against.

See Figure 3 in the paper.

That's what makes the island of Ukara interesting: it's right in the middle of Africa in Lake Victoria, but it doesn't have two of the main environmental problems of the rest of the region. What happened is that the people farmed much more intensively and banged up against the Malthusian ceiling. Ukara traditionally exported its surplus population to the less densely populated mainland, where they adopted the more desultory economic life of the majority.

I see your commenters noted Rwanda as another place of exceptionally high population density. Leaving aside the relative paucity of actual wealth, my initial suspicion is that Rwanda's small plot agriculture can survive relatively well on rain-fed water/irrigation, whereas, say, Nigeria might have to rely more on more conventional irrigation. That's simply impossible given Nigeria's quality of governance, particularly after the Nigerian Civil War.
Of course, Rwanda still imports Cereal Crops, IIRC, since a lot of their agriculture has converted to growing Coffee Beans.

Just in passing, there has always been a quiet trend in the environmental movement to oppose any effort to eradicate Tsetse flies and the diseases they carry. Because if the disease burden is lifted, farmers would herd their cattle into what are now fairly strong bio-diverse regions.

A view that goes back to colonial times.

Anybody ever seriously consider reducing the population of big wild animals in Africa -- seriously? I'm a New Yorker so what do I know. But millions of large beasts must us up a lot of resources that could be used by exceptionally poor people. The idea of encountering hyenas on a walk through town at night may deter foreign investors in factories, etc. Today's American Midwest doesn't need 60 million buffalo running loose; that's for sure. Just a crazy thought.

[Two legs good; four legs bad.]

"Ukara has a few major advantages over the surrounding mainland of Africa: no tsetse flies to spread sleeping sickness. No lions and no elephants, either, to compete with humans. Life (and death) is presumably less random than on the African mainland, so hard work and investment pay off more reliably.

"Life on Ukara sounds rather like life in a poor Southeast Asian peasant society rather than in most of Africa."

The Pleistocene mass extinction of megafauna impacted Africa the least of all continents.

This is probably because megafauna in Africa evolved with us, but when humans left Africa we became a classic invasive species and disrupted and destroyed almost every eco system we encountered.

The tragedy of Africa is that it is home, and thus everything there from bacteria and protists, to Nile Crocodiles and Lions, is really really good at killing us.

Just think how humanity will thrive if we ever find another inhabitable planet.

It's also because Africa's climate changed the least while most other regions saw pretty major changes in temperature and/or rainfall with the end of the Ice Age.

Great point, my uncle, a vet by training, had the inspired idea to begin harvesting and selling to Western Universities biological material for use in university biology departments. I had lots of fun at customs when a shipment arrived with 1000 pubic lice, 500 infected anopheles mosquitoes, 100 tapeworms, 500 infected snails with virus mid transition. They were all preserved in a form of alcohol, but it still took allot of paperwork and some explaining. To brush up on the potential business, I bought a book of infectious diseases, and discovered to my horror that more than half the book was dedicated to Africa.

"Tsetse flies" do not cause illness.

The parasite that causes "sleeping sickness" cause illness, but it requires human hosts to spread rapidly, or even to exist - not clear if it can develop in animal hosts.

The life cycle of the parasite is short enough that it will not survive migration of flies, and if humans do not migrate, then the parasite dies out in the fly for lack of living human hosts.

So sleeping sickness was not a significant problem in Africa as long as trade was limited, but European and Arab traders moved the parasite into heavily populated regions of Africa and triggered the big outbreaks.

Thus the parasite is nature's anti-capitalism, anti-trade, anti-growth agent that promoted small scale sustainable farming without trade.

Nature and evolution intended Africa to not be a capitalist society.

"So sleeping sickness was not a significant problem in Africa as long as trade was limited, but European and Arab traders moved the parasite into heavily populated regions of Africa and triggered the big outbreaks. Thus the parasite is nature’s anti-capitalism, anti-trade, anti-growth agent that promoted small scale sustainable farming without trade. Nature and evolution intended Africa to not be a capitalist society."

I think that's wrong.

" Prior to the twentieth century, people in Africa had largely adapted to the presence of tsetse. Human settlement patterns and agricultural practices had adapted to the presence of the fly. For example, in Ethiopia draft powered farming was restricted to the highland areas where the flies were absent, whereas lowland areas where tsetse are present were more sparsely populated by people living a nomadic, less agriculturally intensive lifestyle. "

Sleeping sickness was not a significant problem in Africa because the disease kept the populations low in the areas where the tsetse fly was prevalent (the wetlands).

JWatts point is correct. IRCC as a child growing up in Kenya, in seeing documentaries and pictures of abandoned villages impacted by sleeping sickness, we were struck by how different these places seemed relative to the countryside we were familiar with. Same countryside, these where images from southern Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia but desolate of population.

Thanks for the inhisgt. It brings light into the dark!

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