What is wrong with African cities?

In Africa this process seems not to work as well. According to one 2007 study of 90 developing countries, Africa is the only region where urbanisation is not correlated with poverty reduction. The World Bank says that African cities “cannot be characterised as economically dense, connected, and liveable. Instead, they are crowded, disconnected, and costly.”

I say the one big problem is premature deindustrialization:

What ties them [African cities] together, and sets them apart from cities elsewhere in the world, according to the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank, is that urbanisation has not been driven by increasing agricultural productivity or by industrialisation. Instead, African cities are centres of consumption, where the rents extracted from natural resources are spent by the rich. This means that they have grown while failing to install the infrastructure that makes cities elsewhere work.

That is from The Economist, the article is interesting throughout.


That's basically what Evelyn Waugh saw in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia the 1930s. From his 1938 novel "Scoop," about Jacksonburg, capital of Ishmaelia:

It had been found expedient to merge the functions of national defence and inland revenue in an office then held in the capable hands of General Gollancz Jackson: his forces were in two main companies, the Ishmaelite Mule Taxgathering Force and the Rifle Excisemen with a small Artillery Death Duties Corps for use against the heirs of powerful noblemen. ... Towards the end of each financial year the General's flying columns would lumber out into the surrounding country on the heels of the fugitive population and returned in time for budget day laden with the spoils of the less nimble ...

Under this liberal and progressive regime, the Republic may be said, in some way, to have prospered. It is true that the capital city of Jacksonburg became unduly large, its alleys and cabins thronged with landless men of native and alien blood, while the country immediately surrounding it became depopulated, so that General Gollancz Jackson was obliged to start earlier and march further in search of the taxes; ... there was, moreover, a railway to the Red Sea coast, bringing a steady stream of manufactured imports which relieved the Ishmaelites of the need to practice their few clumsy crafts, while the adverse trade balance was rectified by an elastic system of bankruptcy law.

In the remote provinces, beyond the reach of General Gollancz, the Ishmaelites followed their traditional callings of bandit, slave, or gentleman of leisure, happily ignorant of their connexion with the town which a few of them, perhaps, had vaguely and incredulously heard.

In the remote provinces, beyond the reach of General Gollancz, the Ishmaelites followed their traditional callings of bandit, slave, or gentleman of leisure, happily ignorant of their connexion with the town which a few of them, perhaps, had vaguely and incredulously heard.

Steve, do you fancy there are no peasants in Africa?

Cairo has been a city for a good while, way ahead of any colonization of Egypt, and it fits this model well - so I don't think the state of Africa's cities is a result of colonization or foreign aid. What is also interesting about these cities is that they are hives of low level entrepreneurship with many little shops and services being offered and people are generally working hard. So it is not idleness or lack of a willingness to engage in business activities. Somehow though it seems like businesses do not scale as well as in the west, so as a business there grows above a certain size, it seems to lose efficiency rather than gain. Part of this has to be predatory governments, which are definitely among the worst in the world. But also there is something about employee quality or willingness to work for someone else, possibly related to the theory that Africa has never really been a Malthusian society like Europe where most people lived on the edge of starvation. African's "managed" their population in the past by sickness, wild animals and warfare. So food supplies were easily found and of course there was no winter to worry about.

"Africa has never really been a Malthusian society like Europe where most people lived on the edge of starvation."

This sentence makes no sense. Every society pre 1800 was a Malthusian society. Africans managing their population by warfare, sickness and wild animals are also features of Malthusian society.

Malthus wrote about a world where food supplies were the limiting factor. Which is the mode that Europe and much of Asia were in for most of their history (until ironically just the point Malthus wrote his book). Where the limiting factor for population is not food, then I don't think it would be described as a Malthusian society. But these are just labels, I think my point is clear.

Infectious disease was a far greater killer in Europe and Asia than famine was.

Also, warfare was at least as significant, and probably more significant, a pressure in Europe than in Africa, owing to the relative amount of land and the periodic influx of migrants from the steppe.

'so I don’t think the state of Africa’s cities is a result of colonization or foreign aid'

Though Prof. Cowen is not a man who tends to care about precision, and recognizing that Egypt is certainly African with its Nile connection in a way that Algeria isn't, Cairo does not really fit the idea of a city based on extracting rents from resource extraction in the hinterlands. Further, it has a more than 1,000 year history, founded by Islamic Arabs, with its major influence being felt in the Arabic world, and not sub-Saharan Africa (again, leaving aside the Nile connection).

European populations in the pre-modern era were also culled mainly by disease, ranging from catastrophic plagues to "ordinary" diseases that carried off the elderly, the infirm, and the young. There were a handful of epic famines in European history (notably in the 14th and 17th centuries), but these were the exception not the rule, and deadly epidemics were far more common.

Read some Angus Deaton about how flat GDP per head (or living standards) were before the IR. There were certainly periods of disease that reduced populations, after these periods, notably the black death, living standards tended to increase for a while, then go back to what they were before. City populations tended to be maintained by disease it is true, but only a small minority of people lived in cities in those days.

Once again, massive famines were less common than large scale epidemics (which affected rural areas as well as cities). The vast majority of deaths in pre-IR Europe were due to infectious disease of one sort of another. And I am not just talking about mass epidemics, but "ordinary" diseases like malaria, pneumonia, typhoid, typhus, various GI infections, syphilis after 1494 etc. To be sure, malnutrition was a factor, but the actual killer was some bacterium, virus or other microbe.

Isn't this the case in the US as well? Urbanization of African-Americans in the US is not correlated with economic prosperity. In fact, seemingly neutral terms like "urban" and "inner city" have become euphemisms for poverty and crime as a result.

Black migration to northern cities after WWII to 1970 improved their economic situation as they took advantage of industrial jobs. The subsequent decline in manufacturing hit them especially hard. Unlike African cities, Detroit today (as an example) is neither crowded nor costly, though the infrastructure is falling apart.

When transportation costs are high, it makes sense for sub contractors to be near manufactures, as in Detroit, where Ford even had his steel plant. But also taxes were punishingly raised to flight cost, controlled pre WWII by railroads. The interstate and reliable disel trucking chaged that and sub and major manufactures could move to less taxed, lower cost, cheaper and nicer housing suburbs.

In a way, it seems, blacks are late to the party, appearing in mature, consolidating industries. They don't cause it, just correlate. Old, dying cities are just like buying a old car. Cheap to get, but you make sure you don't get it repainted. You just. Lebowski a 7-11 quart of cheap oil every two weeks.

Another thing. Cities are voter farms for Democrat power struture, paid for by suburbs, rural and city residents . Hence the same flights once from the grip/extortion of city to burbs, now out of state flight as the city shakedown machinery had learned to reach out in their modern donkey trains to the hinterlands.

I am sure there are *some* exceptions to this (Detroit may well be one), but no. Cities are not "voter farms for Democrat power structure, paid for by suburbs, rural and city residents." Cities are generators of economic activity. In the US, and in most other nations, cities subsidize rural areas, not the other way around.

(I don't actually have a problem with this. There are good reasons why rural regions eat up a disproportionate share of resources relative to population, not least of which is economies of scale. Still, governments generally redistribute revenue from cities to rural regions.)

I can't quickly find any data on cities in particular, but this link (Wikipedia, but well-sourced) on state revenue can at least give you an idea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_tax_revenue_by_state If you sort the list by revenue per capita, you'll see the top ten is dominated by heavily urbanized states* while the bottom ten is dominated by more rural states.

A notable exception is Nebraska - I don't know what's going on there. Berkshire Hathaway?

This is in many ways an artifact of how you define a city. Are we talking about MSA (which includes the suburbs) or the city proper?

Take Baltimore for instance. It has a median household income of $41,000. Meanwhile, Bel Air, an exurb up I-95, has a median income of $80,000. However, Bel Air is included in the Baltimore MSA. This is also true of Carroll County, and overwhelmingly white county I'm told is RACIST and also has a higher income level then Baltimore City.

I guess if you compare the Baltimore MSA to some out in the middle of nowhere rural county it looks like cities are the big driven of economic growth. In reality it seems to be the middle class white people living in the suburbs and going to work in the city. Why do they have to commute all the way from the suburbs to the city? Because Orcs control their cities and extract their tax dollars from the statehouse to survive.

Carroll County and Bel Air are both heavy for Trump, but they will get out voted by the orcish hordes inhabiting the slums of Baltimore. And of course a few executives living along the harbor will jack off to how much better they are then the racist middle managers they have to commute into the HQ from the burbs.

Re: Why do they have to commute all the way from the suburbs to the city? Because Orcs control their cities and extract their tax dollars from the statehouse to survive.

Taurine byproduct to this. The reasons people live in the suburbs are more complicated. First and foremost though, housing is generally cheaper and lots are larger (important to families with children and pets larger than a housecat). And often newer and more up-to-date as well, though exceptions are numerous. Suburbs were originally quieter, healthier and freer of pollution, though we have made great strides in cleaning up cities-- and deindustrialization has removed the source of much of the pollution (when I was growing up in SE Michigan you could always tell what way was east on a clear day-- the direction of Detroit where the sky was smudged by its smog). And yes, crime is less in most suburbs-- though high crime suburbs are becoming a thing as suburban poverty also increases. And in many (not all) suburbs schools are better or at least newer. Meanwhile there's been a trend of mid-to-high income people moving into the cities, especially younger, childless ones, for both cultural and lifestyle reasons. I am an older, but also childless example of this. Often these are people who work long hours in city centers and they do not want to add a punishing commute on top of an already long day.
And please do not refer to human beings as orcs. They are... human beings just like you. Racist insult does nothing to further any discussion, besides being full on disgusting.

I think people forget just how poor rural black sharecroppers in the pre WW2 South actually were.

Moving out of rural Mississippi to urban northern cities improved their standard of living.

The median black household in New Jersey earns more than the median household of any race in Mississippi.

They're poor by New Jersey standards but much richer than they would be had they stayed back home in Jackson.

Blacks in New Jersey are not 'poor' by 'New Jersey standards' or by anyone's standards (unless it's your contention that wage-earners in general in this country qualify as 'poor', an assertion which would come as a surprise to said wage earners and to federal statisticans. Blacks have lower incomes on average. That is not the most salient distinction between the two subpopulations as regards living conditions. The most salient distinction is exposure to crime, school disorder, and decaying built environments, which, unlike 'inequality' or 'low income', actually is a problem to address.

Black Americans have income levels about 1/3 lower than the general population, i.e similar to real income levels in South Korea and higher than a number of European countries. You fancy black people's wages, in contradistinction to anyone else's wages, are not a function of skill sets?

Wages are a function of skills within one country at one time. You can't compare them across time and space, unless there's open borders. A burger flipper in America might make over ten times what a burger flipper makes in Nigeria, the skill set is the same.

Strange as it may seem to you, there are among the 18 million working blacks in the United States a 7-digit population who do not work in low-skill service jobs.

I don't see how you could maintain that everyone's wages are equally determined by a function of skills.

I didn't maintain that, and if you can read, you know that. I maintain that a population of 18 million working blacks are paid wages which are a function of their skill set, as are other subpopulations. That thesis makes no statements about any individuals wages, merely that there is not a systemic divorce between wages and skill sets applicable to blacks and not applicable to anyone else.

The basic problems with Africa are: (1) tyranny of distance (no 'water routes' like in prosperous areas of North American, Canada, SW Australia, Plato region of Argentina, St. Petersburg Russia, most of Europe including Austria and Germany (Danube, Elbe), China (Grand canal, Yellow River), and, arguably, SE Asia (including India); (2) tropical weather and tropical disease, (3) bad institutions.

"I say the one big problem is premature deindustrialization:" - funny, but TC mentions a reason the early Communists used to debate on: whether you could have communism in Russia despite lack of industrialization (Marx said no, you cannot, Lenin said yes, you can). Yes we can! -- hey, that's Obama, a good president! ;-)

You will note, SS racists, that 'race' is NOT a factor as to why Africa is backwards. Africans actually have the most diverse DNA on the planet (one consequence of tribalism) and, if they ever get their act together and mingle with the white and yellow races, will take over the world! Here is a short video proving this point, who do you think would win? It's clear, if the circumstances were right (larger forces), that the Zulu are superior... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOm_2dGzqp0

"Africans actually have the most diverse DNA on the planet"

Ray, that's a talking point from Bill Clinton's Rose Garden celebration in 2000 celebrating the Human Genome Project. It was pretty dumb back then, and it's really, really dumb now.


This is wrong (as with just about everything published on vdare). Homo sapiens has been in Africa longer than anywhere else in the world. It would be almost impossible for Africa not to have the greatest genetic diversity-- about the only way it could happen would be for the continent to have seen a local extinction with the population replenished from elsewhere (as happened with North American equines). Nothing of the sort happened historically.

Would a "diverse" team of 100 meter runners beat a less diverse team from say East Africa? I think not. Diversity in capabilities might be a successful strategy in a case where the challenges are unknown, but specialization will always beat generalization in a case where the challenge is understood. So better to have a bunch of brainiacs if the challenge is to solve physics problems, than a bunch of random people off the street. It may be that this is Africa's problem - too much diversity - compared with European ancestry which has been through several bottlenecks (including the initial migration event) and is thus perhaps more optimized for industrial society.

Eat Africans are not fast in the 100m. They are distance runners. West Africans are the worlds fastest sprinters.

The Zulu superior? Tell that to the British who successfully repulsed the disproportionately large number of Zulu fighters at the Battle of Rorke's Drift: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Rorke%27s_Drift.

Furthermore, if memory serves me right, the Russian Socialist Party (defender of the peasants) pested Engels so much that he conceded that they could build a socialist economy based in the traditional village commune without going throught the dickensian woes of industrial capitalism. Lenin (in his The Development of Capitalism in Russia) stated that Capitalism, with the attending wealth unequalitilies and class differentiations, had already progressed too far in Russia, damaging the communitarism of the mir, for it to be a possibility. Quite the contrary: capitalism had created both an agricultural plotariat and an industrial proletarit sharing interests and ready to become allies against the tzarist regime and the bourgeoisie.

In fact, it was Marx, not Engels, writing to Vera Zasulitch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obshchina#View_on_Obshchinas


That sounds like a good feature or maybe another reason for the backwardness.

If only we could have some more of that in the western world as well - like: massimmigration without assimilation = multiculturalism = tribalism

It's very good for elites. "Divide et impera". India (with all its different ethnicities, religions, castes, tribes) was ruled for 200-odd years by a few thousand Brits.

Higher average intelligence plus ethnic solidarity is a remarkably powerful combination.

But in countries like the UK (which by 1800 had solved their ethic and religious (mostly) differences after millennia of strife) emerging elites had to introduce new ethnic groups and emphasise intra-group differences (feminism, sexuality), in order to destroy the social solidarity which produced (inter alia) trades unions and high wages.

"I say the one big problem is premature deindustrialization:

What ties them [African cities] together, and sets them apart from cities elsewhere in the world, according to the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank, is that urbanisation has not been driven by increasing agricultural productivity or by industrialisation. Instead, African cities are centres of consumption, where the rents extracted from natural resources are spent by the rich. This means that they have grown while failing to install the infrastructure that makes cities elsewhere work."

So, perhaps "urbanisation" is not the cause, but the effect of "poverty reduction" caused by increased productivity in agriculture and industry. Note that even the study says urbanisation and poverty reduction are merely "correlated". I suspect the alleged positive benefits of urbanisation (in and of itself) are being over-hyped, at best (a la Glaeser).

That's what he hoped you would say.

Once upon a time, the problem was that urban life in Africa was subsidized in various ways so you had what the World Bank called 'parasitic cities'. The primary means were maintaining over-valued currencies and establishing agricultural marketing monopsonies, both of which put the screws to the peasantry. Not sure what the problem is now.

Africa is poor. It is the poorest continent on the planet. And, there are reasons for it, without resorting to the lovely 18-19th Century colonialist pseudo-science and 20th Century Social Darwinism and racial eugenics that popped out regrettably fast on this thread.

When you ask why, you can start with some pop-social science out of "Guns, Germs & Steel" (the developing world is poor because of the lack of large, domesticate-able animals; a lack of Europe's "Malthusian environment" of disease, war, and invasion; and as, Ray Lopez mentioned, poor access to the sea, ports, and navigable rivers.

Certainly, institutions and corruption plays a role.

Premature deindustrialization certainly plays a (worrisome) role as well. Cities like Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) have a very intentional industrial policy to create the manufacturing jobs that soak up rural migrants into a productive urban life, as China's cities did in the 1980s-2000s, America's did in the 1850s-1970s, and Europe's did first during the Industrial Revolution. But, others have gone the other way, like Kano, in northern Nigeria, which used to be the industrial hub of all West Africa, and is now isolated from the coast, deindustrialized, impoverished, and wracked by Boko Haram violence.

There is a real risk that the entire developing world "missed the boat" on industrialization and will just have to try to build prosperity via petty services, without the economically-beneficial legacy of industrialization that post-industrial economies in the OECD enjoy.

People get tired of being lectured about it, but the legacy of colonalism and slavery is there. Africa is the most de-populous continent on the settled planet because it was very directly de-peopled by fellow-African, Arab, and European slavers for half a millennium. Marvel that an entire continent was denuded of up to 20% of its total population--dozens of generations of its fittest men! Mongols, Vikings, and plagues decimated Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, too, but not for such a sustained period. It was as if Europe was fighting WWI (with all the attendant slaughter of prime-age men) for 500 years.

The knock-on effects of that are real at the demographic level today, despite a very high birthrate. The 3 largest populations in Africa belong to Nigeria (180 million), Ethiopia (100 million), and Egypt (88 million). But those are outliers. While the whole world is worried about whether Africa can feed it's seeming teeming masses, the truth is that only 13 African countries have a total population bigger than 25 million (which is the population of megacity Lagos by itself). On this massive continent bigger than the US, China, India, Japan, and most of Europe COMBINED there just aren't that many people.

Another Guns, Germs & Steel-style factor that has been mentioned is the environment. The Sahara Desert is the world's largest, and it's in Africa. Not a whole lot going on there. Most, but not all of Africa is hot (the Great Rift Valley goes down Africa's east like the Andes ridge in South America, and many places, from Ethiopia to Lesotho are extremely cold during the "winter" or rainy seasons). The really "African-looking" Africa is either the jungles of the Equator or the savannas of Kenyan safari brochures. The tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis makes cattle-raising in most of West and Central Africa impossible, which has historic knock-on effects to long-view prosperity.

But, though Africa collectively is poor, there are pockets of wealth. And, there are clusters of widespread, middle-class prosperity around...you guessed it...cities. Not *all* cities. Not the overall gloss of urban Africa. *Certain* cities.

"Africa" is an idea that is very unitary in most people's minds, even more so than "Europe" or "Asia." People now discern between Russia, China, and India, even as they are all "Asia." And, certainly, there would be no conflating the economic and demographic destiny of Greece or Romania with Sweden or Germany, even as both are Europe. Nor would anyone imagine that Bolivia and Paraguay are the same as Brazil and Mexico.

Africa is the largest single continent after Asia, and has 54 states, over a billion people, and hundreds of indigenous languages (in addition to its four major global lingua franca: English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese). It is *extremely* diverse, ethnically, culturally, religiously, and--most important for our discussion here--economically. I've seen that diversity firsthand because I've lived in seven African countries myself (I'm white-American, not African).

Most people's idea of Africa is formed by the news, movies, and Save The Children advertisements, regrettably. Which is why even the educated think that all Africans either: live in huts in noble poverty surrounded by lions and elephants in the vast savannah of our "Lion King" imaginations, or else are child-soldiers high on bloodlust in the jungles of Rwanda-Congo, or are professionally starving to death in Ethiopia (LiveAid 1984!), or are professionally dying of Ebola-AIDS.

Those things have and do happen in Africa. But, the median African doesn't live any of those scenarios. And, flying into any African city you'd have the occasion to visit for business or pleasure, you might be authentically shocked by how *normal* everything is.

You've heard that before, I know. Africa is diverse. Don't be racist or Orientalist. Study your geography, you ninny. Etc.

But, consider that 6 of the 10 fastest growing GDPs on the planet over the last decade are in this "Africa" of your imagination. Take a look around Nairobi, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Accra, Dar es Salaam, Lagos, Algiers, and Cairo...then compare them to Niamey (Niger), Bamako (Mali), or Conakry (Guinea). The former are middle-income boom towns. The latter are among the poorest cities on the planet. Then there are cases like Addis Ababa (where I lived for three years) that is both among the poorest and the most enriching urban stories in the world today.

If you want to paint in broad strokes, you can track the divergence of African cities along lines of:

1) Access to quality ports: Lagos, Cape Town, Durban (South Africa), Mombassa (Kenya), Dakar, and Dar es Salaam are extremely economically vibrant because they have the highest quality ports on the continent. There are no good ports in landlocked Niger, Mali, Chad. Africa, like Asia, suffers a surfeit of landlocked countries. Logistics are very difficult over land, and the continent's crumbling rail infrastructure hampered access to the interior. This has changed in recent years! Thanks to heavy investment from the Chinese in particular, Addis is now almost connected to the Red Sea via Djibouti in the north and Somaliland to the east. $30 billion is currently being invested continent-wide on port-rail projects: Kenya's Mombasa Port to Uganda and Rwanda; a West African corridor linking the coast with Sahel countries like Burkina Faso and Mali; and other projects in Tanzania, South Africa, and Egypt.

2) Colonial history: French, Belgian, and Portuguese colonialism left weaker institutions than British. The French didn't build a single university in all their colonies, outside of Vietnam! The more consistent growth stories in Africa are Anglophone: Ghana, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa. There are exceptions: Rwanda, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Mozambique have been very dynamic.

3) Oil and the "Dutch Disease": Worldwide, the presence of extractive resources is a blessing and a curse. Big energy exporters like Nigeria and Angola are getting killed in today's low-price oil market. Their governments are heavily dependent upon oil for revenue, concentrated wealth from the energy sector increases inflation, and there's a temptation for corruption. South Africa can be plagued by the same dynamics from its mining sector (its diamond, uranium, etc. mines make it the Chile of Africa), and when commodities are cheap (like today), the economy suffers. However, if anything, South Africa and Nigeria show just how important dense urban markets are for African countries. Lagos, Abuja, Cape Town, and Johannesburg has diversified industries, unlike Luanda in Angola, which is the most expensive city on the planet and has sky-high unemployment and poverty (even in the context of a poor continent).

There are many African experiences, and increasingly, Africans are having them in cities. But their stories will be quite different, depending on the country and the city, just as it's quite a different matter living in Detroit vs. San Francisco in the US today. Economists and sociologists must study trends at the aggregate level of means, medians, and averages, but in today's world, it's far more useful to zoom in just a bit more from continents to sub-regions, at the least.

Ethiopia managed to retain its independence for the most part, with the Italian presence being relatively brief. If colonialism is a major factor in how these countries developed, shouldn't it serve as the most useful contrast? Similarly, Thailand in southeast asia.

Does Jared Diamond even defend his thesis in open forums anymore?

Like most scholars Diamond pushed his thesis too far: it is not a Theory of Everything (in human history). It is however a Theory of Many Things when it comes to human history. And much of it is just plain common sense. You won't find a culture dependent draft animals where there are no domesticable large mammals, nor a maritime peoples in a landlocked nation, nor metallurguy developing where easily-mined smeltable ores are rare or non-existent. Geography (and climate and ecology) does matter.

Excellent and informative comment, thank you!

If you bracket out oil and mineral production, there are only a couple of countries in Tropical or Southern Africa wherein gross national income (per capita, ppp) exceeds 1/2 of what is average in this world.

Re: "Africa is the most de-populous continent on the settled planet because it was very directly de-peopled by fellow-African, Arab, and European slavers for half a millennium."

Actually, Africa's always been relatively low density, due to a number of factors such as soil fertility and rainfall patterns. That's not to say that slavers didn't have an impact, but most of the continent itself does not seem to lend itself to high population densities.

Aye. Lots of tropical rainforest, desert, semi-desert good only for low-density animal husbandry.


It's the lighter green shades which are roughly equivalent to the sort of biomes you find in the eastern half of North America.

The French didn’t build a single university in all their colonies, outside of Vietnam!

Africa had preliterate populations. As late as 1960, perhaps 10% of the population of Tanganyika (to take one example, and not a French or Portuguese dependency) could read. Since 1960, the various and sundry governments (with international aid) have managed to institute enough schooling such that about 60% of the population over 15 is at least literate. Before you build a university, you might invest in primary schooling, agricultural extension, and vocational training for mechanics, accountants, and nurses.

While we're at it, the French territories in Tropical Africa had a transient (five-digit) population of soldiers and officials from the home country. There were no colonists. The French colonial population was in the Maghreb, and only particularly numerous in Algeria.

"There are no good ports in landlocked Niger, Mali, Chad"

Poor old landlocked Switzerland.

"Marvel that an entire continent was denuded of up to 20% of its total population"

What, every year? I don't know where you got that stat, but Europe lost 20% of its population in less than a decade during the Black Death. Life was better for the non-elite survivors, as it always is when there's a labour shortage.

It strikes me that the wealthiest African nation is also the one which saw the greatest amount of colonial exploitation - South Africa.

IQ and culture.

Bob's comment upstream intrigued me as well. At some point, cities seem to scale up into dysfunction. 1M+ cities are great places to be rich or poor but not particularly good places for lower tier incomes. Also, the more tax dollars flow in, the more unaccountable city government seems to get. Again, if you're rich you can price yourself away (or above) a lot of the dysfunction.

There's probably a sweet spot in terms of population numbers for various cultures after which cities become parasitic and politically overweening.

What GoneWithTheWind said.

The Tokyo metropolitan area has 37m people (13m in the metropolis packed at 16k/sq mile), yet seems to function pretty well.

You don't need to come up with very sophisticated theories to explain the state of many African big cities: it's all down to bad governance.

P.S.: I live in Luanda, a good example of an African city with too much people for existing infrastructure.

Bad people, bad governance. Good people, good governance.

How to reward the good? Paul Kagame seems to have done good for Rwanda, but that's only by negotiating a billion dollars a year in foreign aid and running the place with a rather heavy hand.

Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania receive proportionately less aid than Rwanda, are more affluent, and are more benevolently governed to boot.

Kagame sits astride two tribes who hate each other. I don't think he has a choice, like a lot of dictators who are in charge of countries that probably should not exist.

who are in charge of countries that probably should not exist.

The two populations have lived side-by-side for centuries, and speak the same set of dialects; there are not any subregions dedicated to one or the other. About 95% of their number live in two countries (where they make up nearly the entire population). Not sure what you have in mind when you say 'should not exist'. The only way you get some other situation would be through mass killing or mass deportation.

Bad governance stems from poorly designed institutions (mostly o purpose) because impunity is the mother of abusive governance. Paul Kagame might look like the mythic "benevolent autocrat" like Lee Kuan Yew once was but he's a bomb about to blow sooner than must people expect. As his popularity vanes, voices calling for change will grow louder and as any "respectable autocrat" he will need to step up his dictator game and become harsher to those who dare to question his right to lead till his will says so and the country now in a virtuous circle will quickly descend to a vicious circle...

Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz once said: "Politicians and diapers should be changed from time to time for the same reason".

Yes, the "magic words on paper" argument. Liberia's constitution contains a lot of idealistic language as well, as did the Soviet Union's.

I suspect he's referring to the land registry, the civil courts, the agriculture ministry, the tax authorities, and the police.

I'm sure Liberia's government has all those job titles as well. I know for a fact Syria's did. I also know nobody ever paid that country's income tax. People are not fungible. More spectacularly, the US did not have all these institutions just lying on the ground for the English settlers to pick up, or steal from the natives.

+1 That was my first thought.

1. Prosperity is a factor of creating succesful networks of specialization and cooperation.
2. A succesful network requires solving the twin problems of sociology -- the knowledge problem (see Hayek) and the cooperation problem (see Prisoners' Dilemma). These are truly nasty problems.
3. The solutions evaded humanity for all of history up until the enlightenment. Then we saw the emergence of a liberal, enlightened philosophy of divided government, rule of law, equality of opportunity and dignity, rationalism, belief in progress, and decentralized problem solving*. See McCloskey and Mokyr for details.
4. These led to the institutions (albeit in a circular and self reinforcing fashion) of science, free markets and open-access politics.
5. Places adopting the winning combination of an Enlightened mindset or framework and these three institutions have prospered to a degree unimaginable to humans pre 19th C. Places adopting them later or drafting on them have done less well. Places rejecting them have continued to be Hellholes.
6. Africa has yet to adopt these institutions and or/this cultural framework.

*. The emergence of the mindset and institutions was due in great part to a thousand year constructive competition among and between competing polities in Europe aka lack of empire aka intermediate fragmentation (see Diamond, Birdzell, Jones, McCloskey, Mokyr, etc)

I think what has better predictive power is what the people within the Hajnal lines didn't have: fatalistic religious creed, polygamy, cousin marriage.

Yeah, those were important. I would add decentralized printing and possibly even mechanical clocks and large guns to the list too.

Instead, African cities are centres of consumption, where the rents extracted from natural resources are spent by the rich.

Are we talking about mining and oil here? If so, are there other nations to which this would apply, and do they share the same issues?

I see Sailer has given the "Seven Samurai" interpretation of "rents extracted from natural resources", but I wouldn't have thought there was that much money in African agricultural surplus.

Re: premature industrialisation, is this the idea that, no matter how cheap finished goods are on the world market, all countries need to go through an industrial stage?

If so, bit skeptical. I don't myself see any reason in basic economics or the present day world financial system that a country couldn't skip straight from primarily agricultural to post-industrial, without any notable intensification of internal industrial activity, if they had the institutional will and education to make it work (to go straight from agricultural to a mature services driven society). It's not how China are trying to do it, but that doesn't mean they took the easiest path.

Africa today, possibly not.

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