Why Africa is not that Poor

No. 61/2021

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Ewout Frankema


The life course of economic history as an autonomous academic sub-discipline is marked by two key transitions: the Cliometric revolution of the 1960s and a second, more recent, revolution in which persistence studies have caught most of the attention (Cioni et al. 2021). This second revolution put the spotlight on Africa. In this essay I explore why Africa has become such a popular place for adherents of persistence studies, and how this new branch has influenced our understanding of long-term African development. I survey and classify the main historical explanations for Africa’s poverty and develop three interrelated arguments. First, that the portrayal of Africa as an exceptionally poor region offers an attractive explanandum for empirical tests of historical persistence. Second, that a pre-occupation with proving persistence has led to a surplus of explanations of structural poverty and an underexposure of both the realities as well as possibilities of change: Africa is neither as poor nor as static as the collective body of persistence studies suggests. Third, that the success of persistence studies in unearthing correlations between historical and contemporary variables impels scholars working with the notion of path dependence to reflect more systematically on the relationship between forces of persistence and forces of mutability.

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