Friday, May 15, 2015

Facts on Africa

Contrary to colonial-era propaganda, Africa had its fair share of major civilizations long before Europeans showed up. Arguably the most famous was the Mali Empire, which dominated West Africa from the 13th to 17th centuries. Under the empire, one of history's most famous scholarly institutions was established – the University of Timbuktu. At its height in the 12th Century, the university drew tens of thousands of students from across West Africa, the Sahara, and as far afield as the Mediterranean. It also boasted as many as 20,000 books. At a time when Europe was just stumbling out of the Dark Ages, students at Timbuktu were studying some of the most advanced mathematics in the world at the time.

Ever heard about the country of Africa? Or a nationality of “African?” All too often, Africa is viewed as a single, homogenous mass of people – a misconception that couldn't be further from the truth. The continent boasts hundreds of ethnic groups speaking close to 3000 languages. Nigeria alone has more than 500 languages, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. And we aren't just talking about hundreds of small groups. Twenty-four ethnic groups across the continent have populations of over 10 million each.

South Africa has a gross domestic product by purchasing power parity of around US$660 billion? That's more than double Denmark. Africa's largest economy, Nigeria, has a GDP PPP of US$$451 billion. African countries aren't inherently poor, and many are rich in natural resources. Overall, the continent holds a third of the planet's accessible mineral reserves. Two thirds of the world's diamonds and a tenth of the global oil supply come from Africa. Nigeria's main export is petroleum, while South Africa is the world's largest producer of platinum.

African governments are all too often viewed as corrupt, incompetent and generally incapable of working for the interests of their own people, let alone the rest of the world. But Botswana’s levels of corruption is comparable to nations like France or Spain.

For decades charitable aid has been the cornerstone of Western ideals of African development. The problem is it's extremely difficult to determine whether aid has done anything to dramatically alleviate poverty. Critics often argue aid is poorly targeted – it either ends up in the wrong hands, or fails to actually address problems and root causes. An extreme case was the 1 Million T-Shirts project. As its name suggested, the project sought to deliver 1 million shirts to Africa. The biggest problem was the simple fact that most Africans already have shirts, and don't need new ones shipped from the other side of the world. Between 1981 and 2010, the number of people living in poverty dropped by around 700 million, according to the World Bank. During the same period, 627 million people were lifted out of poverty in one country – China. Yet China receives a fraction of the foreign aid many African countries do per capita. So how much has aid really achieved for Africa?

One of the greatest victories for civil rights in Africa since the end of colonialism was the dismantlement of the apartheid regime in South Africa – or was it? Apartheid era laws that divided the population along racial lines are gone, the country has a new, liberal constitution, and extreme poverty is slowly being reduced. Yet South Africa remains one of the world's most unequal nations. Take a look at South Africa's Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient is the world standard for measuring inequality, where a score of 0 is the most equal possible, and 1 is the least equal. In 2009, South Africa scored 0.63. In 1993 it was 0.59. According to the 2012 census, Black households still had an average income six times lower than whites. Despite the “official” apartheid regime ending two decades ago, economic apartheid remains alive and well.

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