Is Africa backward?

Disclaimer: I have never set foot in Africa, much less lived there. Those who have please be gentle and patient! This is merely me trying to make sense of what is knowable from America:

Most of Africa is backward compared to the rest of the world, but it is nowhere near as bad as most Americans seem to think.

For example, if you search the CNN website for pictures of Luanda, the capital of Angola, here is the first picture of the city you get:

A slum.

Now try the New York Times:

Slum children picking through trash.

Now try the Internet as a whole. The first picture comes from a blogger:

Yes, that is Luanda. In Africa. Here is another picture:

Since you cannot trust American news to give you a balanced picture – or, for that matter, African bloggers rich enough to have Internet access – what can you do? Is there any quick and dirty way to tell how well off or bad off Africa is?

One common measure is GDP per capita – how much money people make. But it does not take the cost of living into account.  Many in Africa are small-time farmers who grow their own food and build their own houses, meaning that much of the African economy is off the books.

Much better is life expectancy:

  • It is universal – everyone dies.
  • Life is far more precious than money.
  • Most of the things that make life bad tend to shorten it too, like war, hunger, poverty and disease.
  • It is easy to compare to times past.

Life expectancy for those born in 2010 goes generally like this:

  • 80s: Japan, Singapore, Canada, Oceania, Western Europe
  • 70s: America, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia
  • 60s: Central Asia, Ukraine, Russia, South Asia
  • under 60: black Africa

The world average is 67. In America it is 78 for whites, 71 for blacks.

So by that measure Africa is at the bottom.

Here is the breakdown for black Africa by country (the years in boldface I will tell you about below):

  • 67  1960, 1970 (world average)
  • 66  1950
  • 65
  • 64
  • 63  Madagascar
  • 62  1940, Sao Tome and Principe, Eritrea
  • 61  Equatorial Guinea
  • 60  Botswana, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Djibouti, Ghana
  • 59  1930, Togo, Benin, Senegal
  • 58  Kenya, Burundi
  • 57  Guinea, Rwanda
  • 56  1920, Liberia, Ivory Coast
  • 55  Ethiopia, Sierra Leone
  • 54  Congo (both), the Gambia, Cameroon
  • 53  Burkina Faso
  • 52  Niger, Uganda, Gabon, Sudan, Tanzania, Mali
  • 51  Namibia
  • 50  1910, Malawi, Lesotho, Somalia
  • 49  Central African Republic, South Africa
  • 48  1900, Guinea Bissau
  • 47  Chad, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Nigeria
  • 46
  • 45
  • 44
  • 43
  • 42  1890
  • 41  Mozambique
  • 40
  • 39
  • 38  1850, Zambia, Angola

Angola is much worse than nearly all of Africa, making the slum children of Luanda the worst of the worst – not what most of Africa is like at all.

So just how bad off is most of Africa? That is where those years in boldface come in: they are the years when the life expectancy of White American men reached those ages.

So Angola is as bad as it was for White American men in 1850. Not great, yes, but we are not talking 2000 BC or 1400 either. Meanwhile most of Africa is where White America was in the early 1900s.

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377 Responses

  1. That’s how they do it! Same results for India (even the oh-so-gripping Slumdog romanticized the Mumbai slums as quintessentially Indian), Brazil (or “South America” if we wanna compare apples to apples), Bangladesh, The Philippines, etc.


  2. With regard to ‘How Backward is Africa’.

    ‘Advanced’ is usually associated with Western world/nations, which is ultimately tied to industrialisation and the accompaniment of other variables like technology.
    So this is why Africa may be viewed as ‘backward’ because ultimately its not living up to a socio-politico-economical yardstick of ‘Western nations’, and as determined by them what constitutes an ‘advanced’ society (ie teh opposite to ‘backward;).

    Though paradoxically even though the ‘West’ may be ‘advanced’ with regard to certain variables. There are parts of Eastern Europe that can be regarded as ‘mini-Africas’ vis-a-vis Wesrtern nations.

    And this is the stereotypes one sees in Western Europe with regard to Eastern European nations.

    However, although Eastern Europe is not as rich vis-a-vis Western nations. You do not see images of poverty therein broadcasted over the world on a regular basis.
    Though it is becoming this way in England, slowly but surely, with talk of immigration etc.

    Finally even with the ‘advanced’ nations, you can see great disparity. For instance at the time of ‘Great’ Britain, only a small amount benefited from ’empire building’, whereas the lower classes lived in abject poverty.

    Perhaps a good example of this today is America , which has vast technology, all the modern trappings of civilisation etc, but is greatly in debt, does not have a health care system and so on.

    Personally ‘backward’ and ‘advanced’ should be related to factors of how well does a given country treat its citizen, its minorities, women etc etc etc?? In other words the ‘moral component’ as opposed to the ‘technological’ parameters that we use at present. Notwithstanding that I am aware that ‘poverty’ can also lead to a ‘lowering of morality’.


  3. Nice post, but I am not sure how helpful it is. For your average joe 1950s were “ancient history” and the way of life back then looks really “backwards” comparing to today’s standards- not to mention 1900s or 1850s. So in other words, saying “Africa is like early 1900 and not 2000 BC” doesn’t help- it’s the same thing for them.

    I’d try another technique. In America you have large, urban cities. But you also have small towns and poor rural areas. I am not saying Africa is the same as America, but it’s obvious western journalists only focus on things they see as “real” Africa (slum) and not urban centers. But their image of America is always New York or LA, and never some forgotten small town full of white trash people or whatever.


  4. And again…

    With regard to history, we often tend to forget that things are constantly in flux.

    For example, if I have remembered correctly, teh Romans did not like to use British slaves becasue they were thought of as stupid.

    Cue 2,000 yeasr later – a very short period in history. This little island was going to have an empire ‘where the sun never sets’ because it was so vast.

    Finally with regard to history, Blacks have had their respective ‘advanced’ nations at a time when most Western nations (France, Britain etc) were in the ‘Dark Ages’.

    And at some point in the future a similar cycle will emerge again. At present we are seeing the rise of China and even India – both two former colonies


  5. Well, technically, nations didn’t exist back then. But I get what you’re saying.


  6. incidentally, i came across an article on CNN that may interest you. it’s called ‘Photographs reveal secret urban life of Africa’ http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/10/urban.africa.photographs/index.html


  7. When you start off saying “How backward is Africa?” then…well…sincerely, you sound like you’ve made up your mind that Africa IS a backward place, and all that is left to measure is the degree of backwardness. I take offence at that. I really am disappointed considering all I’ve read off this blog. I’m sorry, I’m actually incensed. I just hope you get enough of an education from what I will say. I tend to go off half cocked when I’m angry. And before you ask, I will answer. You, a black person who could probably trace your roots to my continent, are obviously looking down on my continent. The term “backward” is derogatory. One is NOT backward when the person is trying, against all odds, to move forward.

    To be honest, you can not tell me that right there in your country, America, you don’t find such a dichotomy as what you have represented in the photos you have of Luanda (you DO know that’s the most expensive city in Africa to live in right?). Need I remind you that “Precious” the film, came out of your country? I gave birth to my son in your country, in Baltimore. And I saw some rough sides of Baltimore (I refused to step out of the car) but stayed in a more beautiful part of Maryland in Columbia. I have been to New York, to Atlanta, to Philadelphia…and I’ve seen some of the rough parts…and some of the beautiful parts. That doesn’t automatically mean your country is backward or decadent.

    The people putting up those beautiful pictures of Luanda are only trying to create a balance. I am Nigerian, I grew up in Nigeria, and I mean I only left there about 7 years ago when I was 23. I love my country and I love my continent. The thing is, just like there are slums everywhere else, there are slums in my country. And there are the beautiful parts.

    Remember again that Africa is a continent that has been raped continually by the western world. And I mean systematically up until tomorrow and the day after. And the day after that. The oil in my country? Every single big name has it’s claws in there…Halliburton, ExxonMobil, Shell (Royal Dutch)…and you think that they are going to want my country to work when they can thrive on the corruption that goes on in there? Seriously? The odd thing is, this companies do not contribute anything to the people who REALLY need it. (Corporate Social Responsibility??? What’s THAT???) The people who are actually affected by their drilling. The ones who cannot fish or farm to sustain their communities because some Oil giant has spilled oil and killed off what is there, and turned around and given some money to corrupt officials to hush it up. You drive a continent down by your actions yet turn around and call it BACKWARD??? You rape someone over and over again and you expect the person to be able to sprint right out in front of you?

    South Africa hosts the world cup, and foreigners go in there and try to tell them HOW to celebrate, demanding that Sepp Blatter ban the Vuvuzelas. Seriously? You think if Africa was so backward we would be ALLOWED to host the World Cup? Would we really??? And yes, I am educated. I had my fist degree in Nigeria. My English is as fluent as it is flawless. And I speak my Yoruba comfortably and just as fluently. And yes, it is the norm in my country (p.s. we learn English, IN ENGLISH. We are not taught English in a separate language). That I speak it with an accent does not mean that I do not speak it better than the Englishman himself does.

    It is bad enough when white people view one in this manner, but from another black person? Who KNOWS what it’s like to be constantly deprived and put down? Who KNOWS what it’s like to struggle to get up? And then ridiculed for being down there where you’ve been shoved? It’s just too much.

    Africa has been raped by everyone from the Brits to the Belgians with almost everything taken from her. And you call her backward as she gropes her way forward with blood still running down her thighs. Tell me what other continent has taken from the western world as much as my continent has taken? How difficult do you think it would be to climb out of that? To develop??? But we’re backward. We’re described as a festering sore on the face of the earth by the very bastards who caused the wounds. And then people who can trace their history to the continent also call it BACKWARD. TCHA!!!

    I need to breathe…maybe I’ll write some more when my head is clearer and I am not as incensed.

    I’ll leave you with a few links though, these people (my people) are more clear headed than I am right now:


    Read King Leopold’s Ghost. Seriously.

    This is the reason why I feel the term “African American” is hypocritical. You guys are Black American. The only similarities we have begin and end at our skin tone. Period. Why try to identify with a continent you know absolutely noth