Posted by: Home Strange Home | July 10, 2009

Africa: Geography and Growth

I recently re-read some of Paul Collier’s research on Africa’s unique physical and human geography and its impact on development.  Collier’s theory is that Africa’s “dilemma” – namely, its failure to grow since 1980 while other developing regions have experienced accelerated improvements – is due to the interplay of its human and physical geography and its inherent disadvantage therein. 

Africa is relatively land-abundant, with some countries being resource-rich and others resource-scarce.  Collier points out that a large proportion of African countries are landlocked, more so than in any other region.  “In the developing world other than Africa some 88% of the population lives in the coastal resource-scarce countries [of which there are many Asian examples], around 11% in resource-scarce countries, and a mere 1% in the landlocked resource-scarce countries.  In Africa the population is approximately evenly spread between the three groups.” 

Proportionately speaking, far more Africans live in landlocked, resource-scarce countries than in any other continent (look at a map and you will see).  This is precisely the category of countries with the poorest economic growth globally.  In effect, because of the artificial and arbitrary European partitioning of Africa, countries that never should have become countries did.  The result is slower growth for Africa compared to other regions.  

Landlocked countries have the short end of the stick because it is difficult for them to access export markets.  Moreover, in the case of Africa, the neighboring countries are often so poor that regional markets do not exist (unlike Switzerland or Liechtenstein, who are landlocked but have wealthy neighbors they can easily export to).  If a Ugandan manufacturer wants to export textiles, it will spend more money getting them from Kampala to Mombasa than from Mombasa to Hong Kong.  And if you look at an African country’s trade statistics, it will strike you how a large portion of exports and imports go to European or American trading partners, with only paltry percentages going to African neighbors. 

Collier also cites Africa’s “human geography,” meaning the ethnic diversity of its population.  Although the Western press far too often explains away African conflicts with the overly simplistic and borderline racist phrase “tribal conflict,” it is true that a number of African countries are characterized by a small population with extraordinary ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity.  Collier argues that this leads to a higher incidence of civil war and makes democracy more difficult.  

Collier is of the opinion that Africa “missed the boat” that Asia commandeered, namely the globalization-driven, manufactured-export-based growth that has fueled economies and raised living standards in a number of countries in southeast Asia.  The only country in Africa that caught this wave was Mauritius, an island economy in the Indian Ocean.  Because Asia got a head start, it now has massive agglomeration advantages (e.g. external economies of scale) that prevent  manufacturers from relocating to Africa even if labour costs are cheaper.  

History matters – Asia got in first and got ahead fast.  Collier advocates using proactive intervention to boost Africa’s chances of boarding the boat – enforced protection of African exports from overly competitive Asian markets.  Mauritius benefitted from this with the Multi-Fibre Agreement.  Programmes in place today include the US’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), for African apparel exports, and the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA), focused on the least developed countries (LDCs).  However, Collier argues that these programmes fall short of what is needed – more should be done to give “Africa a second chance by leveling the playing field through preferential market access that offsets economies of agglomeration.” 

Source: “Africa: Geography and Growth” by Paul Collier, Centre for the Study of African Economies, Oxford University, August 2006.



  1. i haven’t seen the stats, but i wonder how important is the landlock factor that Collier suggests…

    i don’t find Asia to be the giant Collier suggests. Whereas india, china, taiwan and the lot do account for a formidable growth, asia is also made up of countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Kazakhstan.

    Similarly, Africa also includes success stories like South Africa, Algeria and Nigeria.

    And although better than africa, South and Central America, with only two landlocked countries, do not fare especially well in development indexes.

    i am curious to read more about his reasoning, though.

    • I think his point is that Algeria and Nigeria are precisely the resource-rich, coastal countries that have done (relatively) well. It is the landlocked, resource-scarce countries (e.g. Burkina Faso, Niger) that have done poorly, as shown markedly on the HDI map. Kazakhstan is landlocked but of course resource rich (a colleague of mine recently came back from Astana and noted how expensive and glitzy it is with all the oile money).

      While Collier does not specify specific the “Asian” countries in his paper, one can assume he is referring to the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) that have rapidly industrialized and transformed themselves since the 1960s. Even countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which are indeed quite poor, have had substantial growth in GDP of 5-7% per annum based on labor-intensive textile exports (although in the current crisis, this is negatively impacted). Collier compares this to Africa, which he says has only .1% population-adjusted GDP growth per annum.

      Basically, to make a long story short, it seems that all the statistics show that the most extreme poverty in the world is in Africa. Of course, there is poverty everywhere (even in my neighborhood in London), and likewise in Africa there are many well-off people and places. But the worst cases of starvation, infant mortality, poverty, and non-existent growth always emerge in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the biggest questions development specialists are tackling today is: Why?

  2. although, i must say, this Human Development Index map does seem to prove his point.

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