Briefing Paper

Author: 

Stephen Broadberry and Leigh Gardner

  • The relatively rapid growth rates achieved by many African countries in the last decade have raised hopes that the continent is finally on a path to economic convergence with Asia and Latin America, but history suggests that such optimism could be misplaced.
     
  • Previous periods of rapid growth across Africa have often been followed by phases of economic decline which have erased many of the gains countries have achieved in per capita income. The continent's transition to modern economic growth will thus require a break in the boom-and-bust pattern which has characterized its economic performance during much of the 20th century.
     
  • European experience since the Middle Ages suggests that the pattern of growth based on increasing demand for export staples, followed by economic reversals, has often resulted in limited overall gains in per capita income. This pattern was only broken following the introduction of significant institutional change.
     
  • Placing Africa's recent economic performance in a wider historical perspective highlights the fact that the continent's level of per capita income is comparable to pre-industrial Europe and that the institutional changes needed to ensure sustained economic growth have yet to take place. Growth reversals remain a serious threat to Africa's future prosperity, and therefore it is incumbent on policy-makers to focus a great deal more on the introduction of measures that can encourage the development of a robust civil society.
This paper forms part of the project on Shifting Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy.