Kibera Slums (Nairobi, Kenya)

Going to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time was quite an adventure. I had always wanted to visit West Africa (Ivory Coast, Liberia, etc), however, I had a few friends who wanted to do the whole safari thing and see the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, so I decided to tag along. Well, I ended up planning the entire trip myself, and they went along for the ride, to be more accurate. 😉

Flying into Nairobi from Zurich.

Flying into Nairobi from Zurich.

Flying into Nairobi from Zurich, where I had been stationed for awhile working was quite a unique experience. I didn’t know what to expect traveling to sub-Saharan Africa, because at the time, it was one of the only parts of the world I had yet to visit. I always try to study at the people on my flights to figure out how the native population will dress, look, and act. One of the first things I noticed on my Swiss Air flight into Nairobi was that there were no Africans on the flight. It was quite sad, as usually no matter what country you are visiting, there will be a few native people on the airplane with you. No so, in this instance. I think that says a lot about the ways that sub-Sarahan Africa is isolated, economically, culturally and racially from the rest of the world, which is very unfortunate, as I was to find such a rich, beautiful culture upon landing.

The Nairobi airport was much more modern than I was expecting, and while not a gleaming mecca to Duty Free zones and business class lounges like say, Bangkok, the airport was very

Nairobi at sunset.

Nairobi at sunset.

functional, clean, and well laid out. Customs were very quick, and it was easy to purchase a single entry visa upon arrival for $50 USD. I had anticipated spending $100 USD for a multiple entry visa as my tour itinerary had me re-entering Kenya after being in Tanzania and Zanzibar before leaving for the United Kingdom. However, I was told at customs that if you travel to Tanzania, it’s still considered “part of Kenya” and you don’t need a multiple entry visa. I don’t know if this was because I smiled sweetly at my customs officer or what, but I didn’t have any issues re-entering the country, nor did any of my travel mates, so I believe that they allow travel to Tanzania without needing a multiple entry visa.

However, a note for those planning to visit Kenya and Tanzania: you need a Yellow Fever certificate, both to enter the country and to re-enter your home country. You can get the Yellow Fever Vaccine at the airport, prior to customs, and they give you an option for an extra $20 NOT to get the vaccine and just get a stamped piece of yellow paper saying you have actually gotten it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of the yellow fever, so I took the actual shot. You can also get certified yellow fever vaccinations at travel health agencies and doctor’s offices across the USA and the world. Some countries, like India, periodically run out of the vaccine, so it’s best to do this months in advance. Plus, your immunity doesn’t build up

The magnificent bed in the 'Windsor Suite' that I stayed in at the Sarova Stanley in Nairobi.

The magnificent bed in the ‘Windsor Suite’ that I stayed in at the Sarova Stanley in Nairobi.

immediately after getting the shot, and since it’s a live vaccine, you can get some flu like symptoms from the shot, so it’s better to do this at home and be prepared vs. being sick in Kenya.

After grabbing my bags, which arrived promptly, and meeting my driver at the airport, I was shuttled to the Sarova Stanley hotel in downtown Nairobi. I was really amazed at how safe the place seemed to be, given all of the dire travel warnings one gets prior to any sub-Saharan African travel. I arrived in the evening, so my first view of the city was at sunset, and it was gorgeous! The setting sun lit up the very 80s style buildings in the downtown core, highlighting bizarre right angles and triangularly shaped hut-like structures, soaring 50 feet in the air. The city had a very exotic feeling to it, despite having all the hallmarks of any modern city–office buildings, markets, mobile stores, and the like. Huge signs for Tusker Beer, the national beer of Kenya, were painted on all manner of surfaces, and Java House coffee shops (the Kenyan version of Starbucks) were common on every street corner. The streets were also quite lively and full of people, with lots of dance halls, casinos and discos.

The traffic on the 15 km stretch of highway going to the airport was horrendous, as the Nairobi airport is rather small for the amount of traffic it receives. It’s the only modern airport in all of East Africa, and all safari-goers fly through it, along with tons of Somalian refugees (the Somali border is not far from Nairobi). There are often huge lines flying out, and bad traffic on the last 15 kms of highway as it is the only way to enter or exit the airport. But after that, the traffic wasn’t too bad getting into the city, and eventually I arrived at my hotel and was delighted to find I was upgraded to the “Windsor Suite”! It was a

Masai shields for sale at the City Market in Nairobi.

Masai shields for sale at the City Market in Nairobi.

huge suite with a living room, dining room, massive terrace, and beautiful bed. I couldn’t have been more happy with the room, or with the accompanying beautiful breakfast spread the next day, that I consumed while sitting beneath a beautiful acacia tree in the hotel courtyard.

After breakfast, I had a few hours to kill before my 2pm tour of the Kibera slums, which are the largest slums in Africa and which sit about 5 kms from Nairobi’s city center, where my hotel was located. To pass the time until my tour began, I decided to walk to the nearby famous City Market in the dead center of

Me, at the City Market in Nairobi.

Me, at the City Market in Nairobi.

Nairobi, and after a few attempts at finding it, turned a corner into a massive parking lot filled to the brim with vendors selling all manner of “Africana”. I made the walk alone, and despite almost being arrested for smoking on the street (apparently it is a dire crime to smoke a cigarette on a public street in Kenya), and after bribing my way out of Kenyan jail with roughly 600 Kenyan Shillings (about $7 USD), I was finally able to shop to my hearts content.

It was rather disappointing to me that the City Market was mainly touristy garbage and not authentic African handicrafts, but what can one expect really? It’s a market geared towards tourists, not natives, and there’s more of a profit to be made off of marked up Chinese manufactured, mass produced “Masai shields” than there is off of the real deal. I get it. But word to the wise: don’t go shopping there expecting real handicrafts. Also, don’t go if you don’t care to bargain or are scared of bargaining. Everything is massively overpriced because of the expectation that one will spend at least 15 minutes haggling over the price of each item you want to purchase. Also, bring Kenyan Shillings with you–

City Market, Nairoi

City Market, Nairoi

you’ll end up getting better prices that way because you can haggle down to a lower level. Sure, vendors there accept USD as well as Shillings, but instead of bargaining to say, $5 USD (433 Shillings) you could go do to an even 400 Shillings and save yourself some money.

Everything an African tourist could possibly want can be found at this market, from wooden carved statues and masks, to paintings, to Masai bric-a-brac, to spears, clothing, jewelry, etc. All of it is sold by Masai tribesmen, and most of the men speak fairly good English (and probably some other languages such as Dutch and German as well). All are friendly and inviting but beware that if you express interest in something you will be accosted heartily to buy it. Look furtively and strike when you’re sure you want something. And if you want multiples of something try to buy all from the same vendor, to get a discount.

Wooden masks for sale at the City Market.

Wooden masks for sale at the City Market.

After shopping my little heart out, it was time for the Kibera slum tour. I had called an arranged the tour the evening before, and was easily accommodated at the timing of my choice. At 2pm sharp, a taxi driver sent by the Kibera Tours company arrived in the lobby of my hotel. My friends and I got in the cab and were taken on a short drive to the suburbs of Nairobi, where we were dropped of at a Java House Coffee shop. There we met with the other tourists taking the 2pm tour, along with our guides, Freddy and Martin. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, especially Freddy and Martin, who mentioned several times that they were from the same Kenyan tribe as President Barack Obama. 🙂

We all started out on foot to the slums, meandering behind the shopping center with the Java House coffee shop and a few other stores, and down some dirt roads, and through some light bush. Eventually, we popped out into one of the most impressive shanty towns I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen shanty towns in Mumbai, Brazil, Bangkok, etc, but Kibera was different. It was so BIG! Plus, everything was built on rubbish, literally. Kibera sits on one massive rubbish heap, and the ground beneath my feet turned into compressed garbage as we got closer and closer to the heart of the area.

The tour passed through several enclosed markets, and the dwellings all began to be made of corrugated iron sheets and blue tarps, with a few made of scrap lumber and plywood. In one of the markets, a local woman pulled me aside and showed me how to wear my purse–clutched in front of me, not hanging loosely to the side. Our guides hadn’t mentioned any danger of theft in the area, but looking back, I should have probably known not to look like a rich white tourist with a dangling purse waltzing through a place where the

One of our guides standing along the railway which runs through the middle of Kibera.

One of our guides standing along the railway which runs through the middle of Kibera.

vast majority of people lack basic food, water, and electrical services. I thanked her for her advice, and asked Freddy and Martin how dangerous the slums really were. I am not a big believer in danger, as in, I don’t ever notice it or feel it or even really believe in it. I feel like people who perceive danger are all making it up in their heads. Freddy told me that it probably wasn’t a safe place to walk around at night, but during the day, with them, that I would be alright.

A word about the guides–Freddy and Martin are native Kenyans who grew up and who currently live in Kibera. Their homes just recently began to benefit from electricity. They still don’t have running water or plumbing in their homes. I really enjoyed having them as tour guides because they were FROM Kibera and could really represent their home to foreigners without feeling like we were somehow exploiting or gawking at their misfortune. It was fun to walk around Kibera and hear a “Hey Freddy, how’s it going!” or “Martin, when are you coming by, your mother says to visit her later!”. It really felt like I was part of the neighborhood, so to speak. I probably wouldn’t have taken the tour, otherwise. I generally feel that tours of economically impoverished areas are unsavory, but given the circumstances, I gave it a go.

After a general tour of the main streets of Kibera, which were hard to navigate in sandals (wear closed

The railway tracks in Kibera.

The railway tracks in Kibera.

toed shoes if you go–there’s a lot of open sewage, rotting food, sharp nails and waste in the streets), we were taken to a small primary school which functioned inside Kibera to try to educate children who grew up there. It was very difficult to see, as these children were all huddled in a dirt floored, corrugated iron shed, with about 30 small children to one teacher. However, they were lively, bright eyed, obviously eager to learn, and singing a song and dancing around when we visited. They had some blackboards and some chalk and were doing some lessons, but the teacher stopped for a moment and let them swarm us, giving us hugs and shaking our hands and asking in broken English all manner of things–“What name? Come from? You live Kibera?”. It was utterly adorable and I just loved all the attention these kids were willing to give us! Plus, they were so HAPPY, which I think goes to show you that money is not the dividing line between being satisfied in life and being empty. Almost all of the people, young and old, that I ran into and had the privilege to interact with were happy, or at least, in good spirits. People were laughing with their neighbors, telling stories, working hard with their friends. It was a very social place, because no one had much privacy as all the buildings were right next to each other, and the walls simply a plywood board. Kibera may be lacking in water, food and electricity but the people there certainly don’t fixate on what they don’t have. It’s more of a community that any I’ve seen and more tight knit and supportive.

Speaking of which, our next stop were several charities based in Kibera, mainly there to assist people who were HIV positive (which a large

Kibera street scene.

Kibera street scene.

portion of Kibera was) and especially women who were HIV positive. A lot of the education these NGOs gave (most were Kenyan founded, run and directed) were geared towards women who were HIV positive who became pregnant. They focused a lot on how to keep the child from getting HIV from the mother’s breast milk, in addition to supplying small loans and financing to women who wanted to start their own businesses. I was very impressed by the work they were doing and met some amazing HIV positive women who owned bead and jewelry stores. A few people on our tour wouldn’t touch the HIV positive women, which I found supremely insulting, especially after it had been explained a few times that HIV cannot be spread by touch or even by kissing! I was rather disappointed in a few people on my tour and wanted to apologize for their actions.

Our last stop on the tour was Freddy and Martin’s house, where we were able to make donations to any of the NGOs we had visited or to Freddy and Martin themselves. We all signed a tour book and were offered hand made t-shirts for $10 USD. It was interesting to visit their home, as it was like any other home in Kibera–made of scrap metal and wood, with no running water and furniture dug out of the garbage heaps. After spending 4 hours walking around with Freddy and Martin and getting to know them as friends and humans, seeing their living situation made you realize that all of these people living in Kibera were both human and intelligent, and not so different (in fact, the same) as you or me. A lot of people see poverty as a dividing line between humans and that poverty brings certain characteristics with it, such as sloth, lack of intelligence, or some sort of other defect. Fact is, poverty just happens. You’re born into it, and once there, in ANY country, and especially in Kenya, it’s almost impossible to remove oneself from it’s clutches. I admired Freddy and Martin for doing what they could to make money and to build a business based off of their situation, rather than being ashamed of it. I hoped that the people on the tour realized what I did, and that they saw poverty not as a result of a defective character but as a circumstance that should be fought as much as possible through charitable work, education, NGO resources, and correct political policy.

Panoramic shot of the Kibera slums.

Panoramic shot of the Kibera slums.

The tour lasted about 4 hours, and by the time the tour was over, the sun was setting and everyone said their goodbyes and went our separate

A cheeky note left on an acacia tree in the central courtyard of the Sarova Stanley hotel.

A cheeky note left on an acacia tree in the central courtyard of the Sarova Stanley hotel.

ways. My friends and I caught a cab back to our hotel, and after so many hours in the bright African sun, we happily took a nap before dinner. Well, I took a 30 minute nap (as opposed to everyone else who slept for 3 hours!) and then hit the pool. Hey, you can sleep when you’re dead! I had some swimming to do…


To Get There: SWISS Airways, a codeshare partner of United Airways and part of the Star Alliance. They have daily flights to and from Nairobi from Zurich, priced around $800-900 USD, round trip. Decent airline, with modern airplanes, replete with economy plus seats, personal entertainment centers, and charging outlets under the seat. Flight is approximately 8 hours.

To Stay: Sarova Stanley Hotel, the first 5 star luxury hotel in Nairobi, built in 1902, and upgraded in the mid-90s. Rooms start at roughly $150/night, and go up to $400+/night for luxury suites. Location is great, in the heart of downtown Nairobi, and the City Market is within walking distance, as are many shops, restaurants, and discos. The pool is rather small and the menu during the day is limited, but the breakfast spread is to die for!

To See: Kibera Tours, the only walking tour of the Kibera slums, which sit on the outskirts of Nairobi and are the biggest slums in Africa. The tours are run by Freddy and Martin, two local Kibera residents (born and still living there). Highly recommended. 2500 Kenyan Shillings (about $30) per person, with the option to donate money to various aid agencies at the end of the tour or to buy handmade t-shirts that promote Kibera tours. Tours depart once in the morning, at 8am, and once in the afternoon, at 2pm. To arrange a tour, simply call the number listed on the website, or send an email. The response is quick, and pick-ups easy to arrange.

To Shop: City Market, located in central downtown Nairobi. Looking for African souvenirs? This is the place to go. From Masai shields and spears to carved wooden masks and beaded necklaces and bracelets, City Market has it all. Be ready to haggle, bring your money in Kenyan Shillings, and be aware that most of the items being sold are not locally produced.

5 Comments on “Kibera Slums (Nairobi, Kenya)”

  1. What do you feel is the ultimate origin of poverty here? I’m highly interested in politics, anthropology, sociology, etc, and I find that the origins of a current situation may occur thousands of years in the past. Certain areas of the world developed faster than others, and we seem to be living in a very Eurocentric, Western-dominated period of time right now, at least in terms of the collection and location of power and wealth. Africa seems to be getting the short end of the stick out of all the continents; they have a good amount of natural resources (oil, minerals), but there is just so much corruption in government, the money does not get distributed to the people. These corrupt governments are kept in place by powerful outside business interests such as foreign governments and corporations, and by extension, American citizens as we keep supporting our own corrupt institutions. What do you see are the main reasons for the dire situation in Africa, and what can we do as Americans to help change that?

    • I personally think a lot of sub-Saharan African’s problems stem from centuries of colonial mistreatment and the endemic racism and misuse of power that accompanied Western imperialism and colonialism. I mean you have an entire part of the world that has very little modern history of self government because for the vast majority of the modern age sub-Saharan Africa was ruled by forigeners who did not have the interests of the natives at heart. In fact they didn’t even view the native inhabitants as fully human. That takes a toll on the psyche of the people plus it inhibits them from learning effective strategies for self governance. Their examples of governance have either been kings and warlords or imperialists who treat them like slaves so it proceeds logically that their governments would be corrupt because that’s how power in their countries has always been handled. Plus, historically speaking that Saharan desert created a great natural barrier that kept a lot of the Western ideas of enlightenment from passing south into sub-Saharan Africa so from a historical perspective these ideas are rather new. Look at the west and look at how long it took us to perfect the idea of democracy and “freedom”–thousands of years. Sub-Saharan Africa has only had about 50 years of independence to perfect their governments so of course they will be at a different stage of development.

      In addition to all of this, also realize that pretty much all sub-Saharan states have arbitrary borders which were drawn by Western colonialists to please and appease other Western powers and these state borders do not line up or correlate to any naturally existing ethnic communities. So you have these states that wouldn’t naturally exist and that combine different ethnic communities in sometimes contentious ways. This also hinders the efficacy of local governments and explains the myriads of civil wars also common in the region. If these states had developed naturally along tribal and ethnic groups like European states did, there would be much less conflict. Lastly, I believe that the West has also caused a lot of issues in this region by demanding democracy when such states with warring ethnic communities were not ready for it. Democracy isn’t always the right choice for all situations. It should be the end goal but along the way we in the West had many monarchs and dictators and oligarchies before we graduated to democracy. This is because democracy is great for ethnically pure developed regions but it’s detrimental to developing nations with tons of ethnic differences. I think a strong leader or benevolent monarch would actually help unite and develop much of these unstable regions but we demand democracy which continues to erode the states power and security.

      Anyways in short–problems are caused by a myriad of reasons (colonialism, history of geographical isolation, illogical state boundaries and pressure for democracy from international institutions) and what can we in the West do to help? We can stop meddling in their affairs and stop demanding that the 1950-60s arbitrary borders be enforced. We can advocate for a complete redo of sub-Saharan African nationalist borders according to local tribes and ethnic groups. We can also stop multinational corporations from coming in as new age colonialists and gutting the natural resources of these places. We can advocate for strong laws that demand the nationalization of major commodities in these countries which will prevent predatory speculation and development by stronger neo colonial powers such as China and the USA.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

      Ps– if you’re interested in deeper analysis, check out the writings on the region by Robert D. Kaplan.

  2. As I see it, we can get a good handle on the ultimate sources of the distribution of global wealth and power by grappling with two questions: (1) How did Western societies become so wealthy and powerful? and (2) Why has African economic development been so much slower than other former colonial areas?

    Explaining Western Hegemony:

    Clearly, as both of you pointed out, the West’s lead in wealth and power was entrenched and perpetuated by European imperialism. But the latter doesn’t get at the ultimate sources of the former, for it doesn’t explain how European societies were able to conquer, exploit, and dominate so much of the world in the first place. There are many explanations, but I think a great place to start one’s inquiry in the matter is Jared Diamond’s argument in “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

    To oversimplify, Diamond’s argument is that biogeographical conditions provided significantly more advantages for some societies than others. Eurasia enjoyed an edge in both the number and quality of potentially domesticable plant and animal species. Moreover, its East-West axis was more conducive to the spread of those species than the North-South axes of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa. These advantages resulted in Eurasian societies getting a head start in the development of power-conferring economic, technological, and political structures—farming, writing, complex political organization, metallurgy, etc. Their benefit also snowballed with the passage of time, especially since they enabled denser populations, which often lead to more intense interaction and intersocietal competition. Lastly, proximity to domesticated animals resulted in early exposure to, and the subsequent development of resistance for, numerous nasty diseases. Non-Eurasian societies lacked that resistance and had fewer epidemic diseases of their own to equalize the deadly trade. Thus, the outcome of any competitive interaction between a Eurasian society and a non-Eurasian one were strongly stacked in the former’s favor, and became more so over time.

    How did the European portion of Eurasia become so powerful? Diamond argues that Europe’s topography encouraged a moderate level of political fragmentation not seen in either India (too fragmented) or China (too united). European polities were left in a kind of sweet spot: small enough for there to be competition, but large enough for each to possess a fair amount of power. Also, Europe’s ecology was more resistant to human exploitation than the Middle East, the agricultural productivity of which suffered over time from desertification, salinity, and thin, easily eroded soils.

    Diamond’s argument is very broad, so it’s not without its faults and limitations. For one, the spread of crops and animals is far more complex than Diamond’s east-west axis implies, since we know that human factors like migration and trading routes strongly influenced what went where. By far the biggest problem with his argument is that it falls short in answering the important question of why the European portion of Eurasia became so powerful. The main geographic factors he points to here are not very convincing in explaining Eurasian variance. For example, even if we accept his argument that political fragmentation stems from geographic factors, it is not necessarily advantageous for power-accumulation. Just think about the Italian city-states of the early modern period, which were constantly preyed upon by the larger polities surrounding Italy. Division amongst the Italian states was a source of weakness, not strength. Another problem with his argument is that, by focusing on the advantages that enabled Europe’s formidability, Diamond overlooks the striking variance in the desires of Eurasian societies (to, say, compete for power or pursue internal harmony) and in their willingness to conquer others and commit violence. As I said, though, it’s a good place to start.

    Explaining sub-Saharan African Development since Independence:

    Some former colonies of the European powers have succeeded in narrowing and, in some cases, closing the gap in living standards with the West, but many others—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa—have not. Why has economic performance varied so much? Several explanations strike me as powerful: (1) the continuing impediments of African biogeography, (2) the “resource curse”, (3) vestiges of colonialism, (4) foreign ownership of Africa’s capital stock, and (5) weak and corrupt institutions.

    I’ll explain them, and offer some reading suggestions, in a subsequent post. Haven’t had the time to write it just yet. I’ll also offer a bit of critique regarding the proposed solution to Africa’s “inorganic” borders. While I agree that they are a source of tension, I’m not so sure that allowing border adjustments and more partitions would help. It’s perhaps better to stall and hope that either national identities develop or nationalism as an ideology weakens. But more on that later.

    Also, in terms of helping out, at least at the individual level, you can donate to GiveDirectly, which transfers purchasing power from the citizens of rich countries to those of poor countries. It accomplishes that by simply handing money to poor people in Africa. The money comes with no strings, mandates, or directives—the recipients get to decide what to spend it on. The idea—hardly shocking, but strikingly rare in charity-work—is that the recipients know far more about what things (perhaps better seed or tools to open up a machine shop) will improve their lives than others.

    • Wow!! Thanks so much for the info! I’ve read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and found his theories fascinating although as you said they are over simplified in many respects but definitely a start.

      I appreciate the reading tips a lot and any other books you can recommend on the subject I would most definitely read! And thanks also for the GiveDirectly idea–I totally live that concept. I also really love a lot of those local microfinancing projects that are popping up in India and Africa that allow you to give $20-100 loans to small farmers and businesses to help them get started and they pay you back without interest. I really support empowering local people and letting them tell us what they need vs coming in with an idea that we know everything! I also try to stick with locally owned NGOs, I want to, like I said, empower people from that culture NOT to have forgieners come in and tell them to do this or that to succeed. Local people know the communities better anyways, speak the local language and know the customs and can help in a much more logical way.

  3. Part II of my Response:

    (1) Continuing Impediments of Biogeography:

    Most of sub-Saharan Africa is located in the tropics and much of its human population is concentrated in inland regions. Three biogeographical factors stemming for those facts hamper the health outcomes and/or economic development of the region. First, the wet weather and warm temperatures are amenable to the vectors (mostly mosquitoes) of numerous terrible diseases (yellow fever, malaria, etc.), ensuring that these are endemic. In contrast, the temperate zone has freezing weather, which helps kill of mosquitoes and impedes the worst species of them. Thus, it has only tended to suffer from pandemic diseases which strike suddenly, but only occasionally. The endemic diseases of the tropics impose a significant economic burden, since they are not only very deadly but also costly to treat and debilitating. Second, the tropics are more likely to suffer from poor agricultural productivity. Soils are more likely to be highly weathered (due to their greater age and the effects of higher temperatures and rainfall) and acidic (which makes it harder for many plants to absorb nutrients). The weather in the subtropical part of Africa—that is, the Sahel—is also prone to drought due to its variable rainfall and high temperatures (which causes more evapotranspiration). Lastly, regions with access to sea trade—coastlines, navigable rivers—tend to be wealthier than isolated inland areas, for the simple reason that trade is far cheaper over water than either land or air. Unlike other continents, a large portion of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is not concentrated near a coastline or navigable river. Areas like the Ethiopian highlands and the African Great Lakes region support enormous populations, but are relatively isolated. Two factors likely play a role in the concentration of African populations away from coasts and navigable rivers: (1) the slave trade and colonial commodity production decimated populations near the coasts and (2) the populated inland areas are along the mountains of the Great African Rift; the cooler temperatures found in higher altitudes helps control mosquitoes and the region is volcanic, which provides richer soils.

    (2) The “Resource Curse”:

    Many African countries are seemingly blessed with immensely valuable mineral deposits (gold, diamonds, oil, etc.) and yet they struggle to prosper. Why? One set of explanations is that they suffer from the so-called “resource curse.” I think the research and speculation into the curse can get a bit overwrought, but several phenomena warrant attention. I’ll focus on three factors below: the lack of local employment opportunities offered by mining, “Dutch disease,” and the violation of the rights of poor populations by both their governments and international companies.

    The first thing to understand about mineral resources is that exploiting them is often quite capital-intensive (lots of preliminary work to locate and expose the deposits and expensive heavy machinery to dig it out and transport it), but rarely is it very labor-intensive (only small numbers of people are employed in modern mines). Moreover, mining operations require detailed knowledge and skilled laborers like geologists, engineers, and mechanics capable of working with the enormous machines. Why does this matter? Because poorer countries often lack the capital and skilled labor needed to exploit their resources domestically, as well as the depth of specific know-how that large multinational companies have developed over their decades of experience. Thus, governments looking to exploit their mineral wealth turn to international firms, which invest in lots of fancy equipment and import foreign workers for the best-paid positions. These extractive industries basically operate as exclusive enclaves, with few connections to the local or national economy. The result? Governments get whatever slice of revenue they were able to negotiate with the company, but much of the profit is captured by the multinationals. Moreover, because there are few employment prospects for their own populations—and these are usually the lower-paid positions—the prosperity generated is not widely shared, unless the political institutions are not corrupt. What’s worse, local populations are often dispossessed of their lands in the process of the mining operation, or left with pollution. Check out this for more info:

    The second factor is the economic phenomenon known as “Dutch disease.” Basically, it entails the following process: as the mineral wealth of a country is tapped there is an influx of capital—first as investment to develop the deposit, then as revenue for the government from the mineral exports. This drives up the value of the local currency, which makes imports cheaper and exports more expensive. Thus, tradable, non-mineral sectors of the economy (like agriculture and manufacturing) become less competitive and either shrink or grow less than they otherwise would have—a process which only amplifies the importance of mineral exporting for national output and governmental revenue. This process results in two damaging trends: (1) higher unemployment, since the shrinking sectors tend to employ more people per unit of output than mineral production; and (2) increased economic and revenue volatility, since the price of minerals tends to fluctuate far more sharply than the prices of manufactured goods.

    Lastly, resource development in poor countries often entails the violation of the rights of their citizens. Resources are often located on land owned by individuals. In rich countries, companies have to buy out the owners or compensate them. For example, if there are oil deposits under a farmer’s land, any company looking to extract it will have to make an agreement with him to install a derrick. Thus, some of the rents from the oil deposit goes to the farmer. Moreover, there are regulatory constraints on the company’s ability to pollute common resources (like groundwater or a rivershed) and, should these fail, legal recourses for damages. Obviously, in practice, even in rich countries, mineral companies have been able to harm people (by, for instance, leaking fracking fluid!) and have not been adequately taken to account for it. But, there are protections—strong property-rights, relatively transparent government oversight, a working legal system, a (somewhat) independent press—which work at least some of the time. In poor countries, these are either entirely absent or too weak or corrupt to protect the rights of citizens. Multinationals often collude with authoritarian governments and corrupt legal systems to walk all over the rights of the citizens of these countries. The rights, interests, and objections of the poor are ignored and they have few legal recourses. The result: many are dispossessed, given inadequate compensation, and subjected to environmental damage and pollution.

    (3) Weak/Corrupt Institutions & the Vestiges of Colonialism:

    The political scientist/economist pair Daron Acemoglue and James Robinson argue, most prominently in their wonderful book, “Why Nations Fail,” that continuing poverty (at the national/international level) is largely the result of poor political and economic institutions and the pernicious incentives generated by those structures. Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from particularly bad institutions, the development of which, they write, was a historical process in which the slave trade and colonialism played an important role—creating a “path dependence” that has ensnared most of the continents states since independence.

    It is perhaps axiomatic to declare that the sovereign state is the central political and economic actor in the modern world. The takeaway for developmental economics is that the structure of a particular state—the extent of its power, its efficiency and accountability to citizens, etc.— plays a critical role in shaping its economic performance. Broadly speaking, states support economic development in two ways: (1) directly, by providing basic public services, such as education and infrastructure; and (2) indirectly, by influencing and structuring economic incentives through a legal system (backed up by the state’s monopoly on violence). The first is largely self-explanatory, but the second one needs a bit more elaboration. In addition to regulating markets, fostering the peaceful resolution of disputes through the courts, and allowing the legal abstraction of the corporation to exist, legal systems also determine the character and security of property rights. These all play a role in empowering citizens to innovate, save, invest, etc.

    Some state structures are better at providing and creating those growth-supporting incentives than others. In particular, free systems—meaning those which have democratic participation and, very importantly, checks on political power to protect the rights of citizens—tend to foster better incentives than authoritarian ones. The logic is obvious, since free systems foster accountable government and maintain checks on political power, while authoritarian regimes face fewer, if any, of those incentives and constraints. Thus, autocratic regimes can and do neglect public services, fail to protect—and, indeed, often actively abridge—their citizens’ rights, use the legal system as a tool for rent-seeking, and dispense incentive-distorting patronage to bolster support.

    According to Acemoglue and Robinson, European colonialism “played a significant role in making African institutions worse and perverse political incentives more intense.” The European powers set up extractive institutions (like distorted marketing boards to underpay African commodity producers), neglected public investments, concentrated unchecked political power, established patronage networks, and trampled over the rights of the indigenous inhabitants. These pernicious institutional structures were inherited, and then perpetuated, by early post-colonial governments.

    This is obviously a vast simplification of their argument. I would suggest their book. They also have a very informative website ( and a short paper that solely addresses Africa that can be found here: For the record, I think they misinterpret and too easily dismiss Diamond’s argument in their criticism of it.

    (4) Foreign Ownership of Capital Stock:

    I was struck by a startling fact while reading French economist Thomas Piketty’s magisterial book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”—Africa is the only major region of the world in which “a substantial share of capital is owned by foreigners” (p. 68). Piketty estimates that about 20 percent of Africa’s capital stock (and perhaps over 40-50 percent of its manufacturing capital) is owned by non-Africans.

    Why is that important? Basically, even though Africa’s economic output per person (the value of goods and services produced divided by the population) is less than other regions—an unremarkable fact since Africa is not very developed economically—its income per person is even lower because not all of that output stays in Africa. Some of it is sent off as dividends on the capital owned by non-Africans. How much income is lost to the continent? According to Piketty, about 5 percent of its output (and nearly 10 percent in particular countries)—a figure, he writes, that has been “fairly stable during the period 1980-2012.” For a comparison, he notes that this “outflow of income from capital was on the order of three times greater than the inflow of international aid” (p. 586, n. 33). Think about that for a second: even though lots of international aid has been oh-so “graciously” delivered to Africa, its lost three times (three times!) as much money because foreigners own so much of its capital stock!

    Piketty believes that this fact partly accounts for the continent’s political instability: “When a country is largely owned by foreigners, there is a recurrent and almost irrepressible social demand for expropriation. Other political actors respond that investment and development are possible only if existing property rights [including for the foreign capital owners] are unconditionally protected. The country is thus caught in an endless alternation between revolutionary governments (whose success in improving actual living conditions for their citizens is often limited) and governments dedicated to the protection of existing property owners, thereby laying the groundwork for the next revolution or coup. Inequality of capital ownership is already difficult to accept and peacefully maintain within a single national community. Internationally, it is almost impossible to sustain without a colonial type of political domination” (pp. 70-1). This system is propped up, in part, by rich investors and multinational companies via corruption and by their patrons in the governments of developed countries through diplomatic pressure and the provision of carrots and sticks (trade deals/international aid), etc.

    Another Suggestion for Action:

    While the Acemoglue and Robinson argument is not entirely without its flaws, I think they are largely correct that institutions are very important and that good ones can be very hard to develop. It’s not as if societies, having thrown off an autocratic ruler, hold their first fair election and then everything is dandy. There must be effective limits on political power, political control of military forces, efficient legal systems, etc.—all of which not only take time to develop, but also involve taking privileges away from powerful groups and can inflame ethnic tensions. That efforts to establish liberal democracies over the ashes of autocracies so often flounder is hardly surprising. One important takeaway here is that those countries which enjoy good institutions should allow a lot more people to leave those with bad institutions for their shores. Our immigration system in the US is terrible on that account, since it arbitrarily caps the number of immigrants allowed and is biased in favor of the relatives of people already here (which is one reason so few Africans come here). We need immigration reform to allow more people the opportunity to escape the chronic insecurity, oppressiveness, and poverty of their countries for the relative security, openness, and wealth of ours. That alone could massively increase human welfare.

    Further Reading on Colonialism and Economic Development:

    David Abernethy provides a good overview of the development, persistence, demise, and legacy of European colonialism in his book “The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980”.

    Adam Hochschild wrote a wonderful book on the rise, brutality, and fall of Belgian King Leopold II’s personal fiefdom in the Congo. The wickedness of Leopold’s domain was such that it caused outrage in Europe at the time, leading to a backlash that eventually forced the Belgian government to take it from him, but not before an estimated one-half of the local population had died. The book is called “King Leopold’s Ghosts”.

    William Easterly provides some of the best criticism of post-colonial development efforts in his three books on the subject. The best one is probably his latest, titled “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor”. Like Acemoglue and Robinson, he blames authoritarian governance, and the corresponding absence of free systems, for the lack of development. According to Easterly, development efforts have failed because they’ve neglected the importance of political economy and individual rights, succumbing to the illusory notion that poverty is a technical problem amenable to technocratic solutions. Such a notion, he writes, neglects the importance of history, overlooks the rights of poor individuals, and favors planned, as opposed to spontaneous, solutions to the problems of poverty. He especially castigates developmentalists for working with and empowering autocratic regimes.

    If you’re looking for a more radical critique of the notion of a “great divergence” and of western scholarship on the subject in general, I’d suggest the works of James M. Blaut. He wrote a very critical review of Diamond and another author that you can find here: Blaut also has two books: “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” and “Eight Eurocentric Historians”. I don’t agree with much of his argument, since he strawmans those he critiques, but I’m not entirely unbiased (I took classes with, and love, two of the professors he assails: Brenner and Diamond).

    Lastly, Nina Munk provides a decent account of the failed “Millennium Villages” effort, which was led by the Columbia U. economist Jeffrey Sachs, in her recent book “The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty”. Although she adopts some simplistic tropes and insinuates some accusations which she should have owned outright, it has the benefit of being an easy read and is, despite it flaws, still rather insightful.

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