Solution for poverty

To escape oppression and poverty, Africans have to learn self-reliance

The Zimbabwean by David Barber

16 October 2017


I refer to the excellent article by Tendai Ruben Mbofana which you published yesterday: “Was Rhodesia’s Ian Smith right – African rule will lower the country’s standards?” (

It is sad to see how Africans delude themselves about the reality of what they have created for themselves since the end of colonialism. Tendai is right: not only Ian Smith but virtually all ex-colonials forecast that standards would fall once they departed.

But that didn’t need a PhD in Social Sciences to forecast because it was absolutely inevitable. Even educated Africans – those who actually cared about creating a great future for their nations, not those who couldn’t wait for Whites to leave so they could grab the spoils for themselves – knew their countries were a very long way from being ready to govern themselves.

But that was entirely the fault of White colonialists, not of Africans, because they had made no effort to train Africans in government. They could and should have streamed and fast-tracked the brightest and most promising talent for government. But also – and very much more important – for business. I say business was actually far more important because, post-colonialism, the speed of Africa’s growth was going to depend entirely and 100% on how fast an African-owned and led business-base grew. Africa has still to recover from that because, to this day, its business-base barely exists in terms of what a modern nation requires. And that, more than anything, is what holds it back.

Worse, no modern country can operate properly without a strong middle class, but colonialism deliberately held back the growth of a Black African middle class. Again, Africa has yet to recover from that.

But perhaps the worst legacy of colonialism has to make Africans dependent. If they had a problem, a White person would sort it. Their future would not be in their hands, but in a White person’s. Africans could not have responsibility, or ambition, or initiative. Only White people could have those. An African’s station in life was to be the servant, the employee, and to do what they were told.

All in all, colonialism did everything it could to make Africans far less able to govern themselves.

So when democracy was foisted upon them, they simply were not equipped to handle it. Democracy cannot work unless people have been taught they must be able to stand up for themselves. If they don’t, into the breach steps a dictator. No wonder the prognosis for Africa was so bad. But that wasn’t the patient’s fault, it was the doctor who could scarcely have done a worse job of preparing the patient.

Having said that, I agree with Tendai. Whatever the faults of colonialism, ordinary African citizens in large parts of the continent actually fared better than they do today. Education was better – albeit it only to a certain level. You would never have found what is very common in schools today: teachers who are barely more literate than their students. School books were plentiful. Pupil-teacher ratios are worse now than then. Slums were only minor parts of towns and cities, today they make up over 60%.

He is right that the urban areas Africans inherited were to high standards, but that today they and their one-time beautiful buildings and gardens are decimated. Potholed roads did not exist, and electricity, although not universal, was at least reliable. And in probably every colony, steps forward were being made for ordinary people even though their opportunities for advancement were severely restricted and they were kept as the servants of the foreign invader in their own nations.

However, so-called freedom is still largely an illusion. The White master has merely been replaced by the Black master who has far less interest in his subjects than paternal colonialists did. And the proof is in the results. Because of appalling governance, the income gap between African and Westerner has widened enormously. In 1960, for every US$1 an African earned, Westerners were earning US$9. Today, they earn $25. Africans have fallen behind the West to a truly staggering degree.

The result is that there are now 300% more Africans in extreme poverty than there were in 1980.

The falling standards that Tendai refers to are merely part of that. Colonialists wanted Africans kept smart and standards high throughout society. But African governments in their preoccupation with enriching themselves are not interested in such things, and even their own government departments are shoddily run. And if people at the top don’t care, those underneath won’t.

But there is another reason: the more people fall into poverty, the more standards drop. But also the more helpless people feel, the more they believe – rightly or wrongly – that they have nothing to look forward to, the less they care about their surroundings. This is not African, it is human. The poverty areas in the West are filled with people who feel powerless and helpless, and the state of their homes and neighbourhoods is, frankly, appalling.

What is the solution? There is only one, and it is as Tendai says. It starts with looking inside oneself. Africans – and, in fairness, the vast majority of Westerners in poverty – blame everyone and everything but themselves for their situation. And until an individual starts to take personal responsibility, they cannot and will not escape their plight:

“Forget why I am here, or who put me here. What am I going to do to get myself out of it?”

And the same with society. African society is ruled by corruption and oppression for one reason, and one reason only: it lets itself be because its citizens keep looking for someone or something else to get them out of it.

But once citizens decide it is down to them, and them alone, to get themselves out of oppression and poverty, once they realise that no one else is going to do it for them, Africa will change with dizzying speed.

David Barber

David is a Ugandan-born economist based in London who knows Zimbabwe well and has written extensively about the country's economy.