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Congopen

Africa made easier
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Warning: the first part of this post consists of a theory. Before you mark it for deletion, though, please bear in mind that the theory is not the idea; the idea is for a grandiose engineering project half-justified by the theory. Thank you.

The Theory:
Why is Africa poor, backward and unstable? Well, partly it's because of the colonial and neo-colonial interventions of outsiders, but that just begs the question - why is it that Europe & Arabia were originally in a position to exploit Africa, and not the other way around?

Well, this theory is that there's a reason in the physical geography of Africa, namely, the lack of navigable water. Right up until the railway revolution of the nineteenth century, water was by far the easiest way to move stuff around in bulk. Moving stuff around enables prosperity directly, through trade, but also it enables transfer of ideas (and hence technological development) and the sharing of language and culture (making possible stable political entities on a larger scale). The Adriatic Sea and the Delta of the Rhine, for example, were enormously useful maintenance-free bits of transport infrastructure, which enabled Venice and the Low Countries, for example, to emerge triumphantly from third-world-style medieval wretchedness.

Africa's coast is short of deep inlets (sorry, Slartibartfast), so most of Africa is distant from the sea, and most of Africa's rivers are not navigable, because there are too many cataracts. The one place in Africa which has had a long history of prosperous civilisation is Egypt, which has two useful sea-coasts and, in the lower Nile, a huge navigable river.

Enough theory - on with the explosions:
So, what I propose is to use as many demolition charges as it takes to smoothe out the major waterways of the Congo basin, eliminating cataracts wherever possible, so that anyone with enough resources to build a raft can start to take control of their own destiny.

Repeat with the Zambezi, etc.

I anticipate the following objections:
1. It will take centuries before any benefits are noticeable.
2. In the meantime, the improved communications will be exploited mostly by outsiders.
3. Improved communications will be bad both for bio-diversity (as human development intensifies) and for cultural diversity (as Africa's many micro-languages go the way of the medieval dialects of Europe).
4. There will be an immediate destructive effect on ecosystems that have adapted, in one way or another, to the presence of all those cataracts.

Otherwise, I can't see any flaw in this at all. ;)

pertinax, Jul 11 2007

An earlier half-baked scheme... http://www.sjsu.edu...atkins/groundnt.htm
...in the same tradition [pertinax, Jul 11 2007]

If only they'd listened to him... http://en.wikipedia...wiki/Slartibartfast
[pertinax, Jul 11 2007]

The raw and the cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology http://varenne.tc.c...cld069cook0000.html
Contains an analysis of 'hot' and 'cold' values as embedded in myths [django, Jul 15 2007]

Compensated reduction http://www.environm....cfm?ContentID=4224
Pay up, no need for more destruction [django, Jul 15 2007]

Wealth in people http://links.jstor....PASI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H
Classic text in economic anthropology: question: "do you know there is a system called capitalism, it's different from your gift economy"; answer: "sure dude, we have known capitalism for thousands of years, but it sucks, it destroys our communial cohesion, we don't want it, go away, we consciously prefer to stick to gift economics". And indeed, underneath the apparent capitalism that thrives in Central Africa, the core of the system remains that of gift economics. The theory is even valid for ordinary people in the West, who suffer under modernity. Underneath it all is the quest for wealth in people, instead of wealth in goodies. Very basic, but a classic point illustrated very well in this legendary article. [django, Jul 15 2007]

http://en.wikipedia.../Prisoner's_dilemma [pertinax, Jul 16 2007]

Happy Planet Index http://www.happyplanetindex.org/list.htm
The U.S. ranks 150th. [django, Jul 16 2007]

The European Happy Planet Index http://www.newecono...t_index_160707.aspx
Countries that follow the Scandinavian model rank best. [django, Jul 16 2007]

Life Expectancy over Time http://tools.google...tGO,,,,;GNQ_tGO,,,,
for the ten worst-performing African countries in the HPI. AIDS started to hit Africa in earnest in the late 80ies. [jutta, Jul 17 2007]

Multinationals in scramble for Congo's wealth http://www.guardian...2292,816641,00.html
Scathing UN report points finger at British companies for helping to plunder resources of war-torn African country [django, Jul 17 2007]

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa http://www.amazon.c...odney/dp/0882580965
Classic. [django, Jul 17 2007]

Dictating Development: How Europe Shaped the Global Periphery http://eh.net/bookreviews/library/1124
New classic. Economic growth myth and WorldBank ideology is a disaster for Africa; real causes of underdevelopment must be analysed much more often and better; these are: the persistence of colonial paradigms, western interference, the aid industry, resource wars [django, Jul 17 2007]

No, Congo dudes, you don't get your money back, we stole it fairly and squarely http://news.bbc.co..../africa/6903002.stm
Congolese President Joseph Kabila says he is disappointed Switzerland will not return at least $1bn deposited in banks by late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. If he had an army, he would punish the Americans and the Europeans for allowing Mobutu to rob the country. But sadly, he doesn't have an army, because these same Euro-Americans keep the country in poverty, so they can loot it a bit more. Euro-Americans are evil. We all know it. [django, Jul 17 2007]

UN: "AIDS is accountable for the decline in life expectancy in African countries, affecting mainly the eastern and southern regions of the continent." http://www.un.org/P...les/073004_AIDS.asp
Clear enough? [jutta, Jul 17 2007]

AIDS is marginal in Central Africa - mainly a Southern African problem http://www.unaids.o...untries/default.asp
Congo DR prevalence: 3.2%, Botswana: 24.1%. [django, Jul 17 2007]

Single strongest factor for decline in Congolese life-expectancy: Euro-American war http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/now/feb17/
The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the world's deadliest humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 3.9 million deaths over a six-year period, yet the gravity of the situation remains almost invisible in the eyes of the world, said Richard Brennan, health director of the International Rescue Committee, at a lecture on January 31 in Snyder Auditorium. The number far exceeds those from other recent crises or disasters, including the Bosnian war (250,000 dead), the Rwanda civil war (800,000 dead), and the South Asian tsunami (280,000 dead). "The ignorance is almost universal", said Brennan. [django, Jul 17 2007]

It's started. http://news.bbc.co....onment/10415877.stm
[pertinax, Jun 29 2010]

Africa's central Lake http://amazing-maps...s-central-lake.html
Setting aside messy issues of populace, the idea of altering African waterways has precedent in Engineer's Dreams by Willy Ley. I found a map showing the theoretical African lake. The HB has other such schemes for Australia, Death Valley, Libya etc. [bungston, Jan 11 2012]

[link]






       Apart from it being a huge waste of money, an environmental catastophe, and stirring up conflict and the destruction of society for centuries to come, I can't see much wrong with it - good idea [+].
hippo, Jul 11 2007
  

       Would an improved rail system and building large harbours not do the same job?
miasere, Jul 11 2007
  

       Railways need maintenance. They're great *after* you've got political stability, an educated workforce and a wealth-generating economy.   

       Large harbours are great if you're not five hundred miles from the sea with no easy way of getting there.
pertinax, Jul 11 2007
  

       I think you're on to something - but I think it could go further.   

       In addition to making the rivers more navigable, why not organise great civil engineering projects, such as digging great canals across the continent? These would not only provide a viable transport network, but also provide much needed work, organisation, and a potential for irrigation.   

       Much of Europe's burgeoning industrialisation was made possible by the canalways that were built to support it - in comparison with railways (which came later), they require much less capital investment to operate - and it is that low-fidelity, low investment requirement that's needed to allow under delveoped nations to progress.
zen_tom, Jul 11 2007
  

       Whereas the Congapen has a clip that attaches it to the pen in front.
wagster, Jul 11 2007
  

       Why not just crack open the great rift valley? I think some of it is already below sea level.   

       No major navigable rivers in Africa? I think you are in denile.
Galbinus_Caeli, Jul 11 2007
  

       Yes, very good [Galbinus], but I have already noted that exception. Still the Rift Valley idea is good, so Nile desperandum.
pertinax, Jul 11 2007
  

       Sorry, it was buried so far down the monster paragraph that I missed it. But I refuse to remove the pun.
Galbinus_Caeli, Jul 11 2007
  

       Could this be done from space?
bungston, Jul 11 2007
  

       Puns? Probably.
miasere, Jul 11 2007
  

       // The Adriatic Sea and the Delta of the Rhine, for example, were enormously useful maintenance-free bits of transport infrastructure //   

       Indeed, the operative term being "maintenance-free"! Aside from all the initial digging and damming, I wonder what the cost of maintaining a properly irigated canal network in sub-saharan Africa would be. I would imagine, punitive.   

       There's something to be said for roads and cars in such places.
placid_turmoil, Jul 12 2007
  

       Oh completely the opposite. Evaporation would initially be an issue, but with a constant source of water, the canal banks will be leafy tracts of paradise, shading, cooling and preserving the water within.   

       Weeds and sediment can be managed, to some extent, by the canal users themselves - in a way that just can't be done when someone is racing past at 60mph.
zen_tom, Jul 12 2007
  

       Indeed, [placid_turmoil], the maintenance-free aspect is pretty central to the idea. It's the 'Detonate Once, Punt Everywhere' model of development.
pertinax, Jul 12 2007
  

       The white racist opressors didn't seem to have any trouble at all to get the gold and diamonds and what not out of africa. So No I don't think the white man should blow up half the country side in order to "improve" infrastructure. I will refrain from further ranting because I could do with some sleep right now. I am disgusted with this idea and I resent the use of Slartibartfast to engage my enthousiasm bacause I haven't got one.-
zeno, Jul 13 2007
  

       I hope you sleep well, [zeno], and feel better for it.   

       <verging nervously on pomposity>
I think you might have missed part of the point of the idea, which is to make Africa less oppressible in the long term. Part of the point of addressing physical geography is to move the discussion away from race, in the hope of making it more constructive; when outsiders penetrated Africa in the past, they attributed the 'savagery' they found, and still find, to race. By offering an alternative explanation, I am making an anti-racist point.
  

       By saying 'outsiders', I am including the Arabs of the past and the Chinese of the future, not just the usual suspects from The West.   

       I realise that, for some of the wider definitions of racism, seeing low technology, material poverty and political fragmentation as problems to be solved is itself racist, and my shoulders are now slightly hunched as I wait for someone to flame me on that.
</vnop>
pertinax, Jul 13 2007
  

       //I realise that, for some of the wider definitions of racism, seeing low technology, material poverty and political fragmentation as problems to be solved is itself racist, and my shoulders are now slightly hunched as I wait for someone to flame me on that. //   

       Bah - building things is what people do - we're good at it, and by building things, we've achieved really quite wonderful results. Our greatest achievements come when we are better able to interact with one another - and our lowest ebbs are when we find ourselves isolated. I don't see any issue with this idea at all, and I'm hoping [zeno] is going to wake up in a slightly better mood today.   

       And I agree with your counterpoint [pertinax] if Africa had a more open transport network, it would be that much harder for black racist oppressors like Robert Mugabe to ravage the land and destroy the economy, or for black racist oppressors like the Hutus to commit genocide, or for black racist oppressors like Idi Amin to eject (or worse) much of the professional class because they weren't of African heritage.   

       So can we give this pointless (and logically unfounded) racial thing a miss eh? People of all races do really unpleasant things to one another, always have, always will. It really doesn't matter what the colour of their skin is.
zen_tom, Jul 13 2007
  

       I never called [pertinax] a racist nor his idea. Let that be clear. I called those who colonised africa racists and they were white. yes I was aware that all other colours of people commit terrible crimes also. This does not stop me from ranting against white racist opressors who caused most of the trouble in africa. My opinion about this idea did not change and neither did my mood (unfortunatley). But my mood does not influence my opinion.
zeno, Jul 13 2007
  

       Hey [zeno] we all get bad days - I wish I could change your mind though, which I think is focusing too much on the white/black issue. What if local people built their own waterways and canals?   

       One major thing is that it would increase potential for irrigation which might help avert drought and famine type situations, as well as holding back the desertification process that's seeing the Saraha stretch out ever wider, making unviable numerous towns and villages year by year - I just really don't see what any of this that has to do with historical Colonial exploitation.
zen_tom, Jul 13 2007
  

       But it would render a remake of "The African Queen" completely boring.

(I confess I thought this was going to be an idea about an enclosure for performing with tall drums)
AbsintheWithoutLeave, Jul 13 2007
  

       [Zen tom] What a mature and nice reaction there, thank you. As you are probably aware I can get pretty worked up about anything political.   

       I have a friend who could at one time recite all countries and their capital cities in africa. I think there were more than 90 of them. Each country with it's own culture, political system and regrettably, wars and crimes. Everything is very complex. So now there is a simple solution? Nah. If all the governments of countries who have colonised and thus abused African people would apologise it would be a start.   

       I have another friend who is a direct decendant of those who enslaved Africans and brought them to America. Do you have any idea what happened on those ships? I do not advise you googling it.   

       This is such a big theme, such a big stretch of land, even using the term Africa or Africans makes me queesy because there is no such thing. It's like talking of europeans and then not realising that if I walk for two hours I am in a different country with a diffrent history, a different language and everything.   

       It reminds me of tribes that were discovered (can you sense the utmost arrogance in that phrase?) that where doing just fine at the time and now they want ghettoblasters and nike footwear and what not..   

       Imagine you are happily married and some beautifull chick comes up and rubs her gigantic jugs in your face ready to go down on you. You did not know you wanted that. After all you are a happily married man. But now that you see it your bodily fluids rush you into things that will seriously compromise your life.   

       Does this make any sense to you? I hope it makes you understand why I voted against this idea.   

       Do not look towards Africa to change it. Look towards Africa (or better yet go there) to learn about the folly of your ways. We are talking about people see? not land. if you truly respect land, soil, earth, dust, mud and all you might be ready to start thinking about trees, grass, flowers. (If you now think I rate people above animals you did not get my drift.)   

       Well I hope you see that my perspective on things in general is very complex and maybe you understand my negative vote a litle better.
zeno, Jul 14 2007
  

       I respect your point of view, [zeno], but the fact is, I have been to Africa (admittedly, only to one country), I have worked with Africans (from more than one country), and I know the difference between an Ibo and an Amhara.   

       Similarly, I know the difference between Antwerp and Venice but, despite those differences, we can still talk about a European history and civilization. Similarly, we can still talk about Africa as Africa.   

       I think it's too late to think of it in terms of pristine nature; the outside world is stuck right into Africa and will not go away.   

       Maybe my facetious treatment of the problems associated with the idea (as listed in the idea itself) offended you, in which case I apologize for the offence. I just felt that a tone of deep moral earnestness would not be appropriate to this forum; here, we regularly treat matters of life and death facetiously, in the knowledge that what we propose is unlikely to eventuate.
pertinax, Jul 14 2007
  

       Oh, I was not offended at all I thought it was a bad idea and was cranky.
zeno, Jul 14 2007
  

       That's a relief. :)
pertinax, Jul 14 2007
  

       Very weak theory, pertinax.   

       First off, when the Europeans conquered Africa, suddenly these rivers became all navigeable. See the Belgian Congo, the wealthiest of all colonized countries. They got goodies out of the Congo over the Zaire, which has only three problematic cataracts, all bridged by intermodal transport means.   

       The truth is that African cultures did not adopt 'modernity' because it is unsustainable and leads to the destruction of the socius, of culture and of nature.   

       Anthropologists have found that African (and virtually all other non-modern) cultures have even embedded their *conscious* resistance to something like modernity in their myths. If they wanted to, they could have adopted modernity, but they did not want to, very consciously so.   

       Infrastructures are important, sure, but culture is far more crucial when it comes to dealing with modernity. Do we want modernity. No, we have had enough of it. The entire world is looking for ways to 'Africanize' itself, against the madness of modernity. Just think of the immense push for the concept of 'sustainability', something that is entirely incompatible with modernity.   

       By the way, a similar example is often given in the context of China's naval power. If China *wanted* to, it could have conquered and colonised Asia and the Americas and even Africa - Zheng He's fleet was far more advanced than the portuguese and spanish fleets that conquered new lands. It's just that the Chinese consciously chose not to conquer and colonize. They discontinued the exploration program because they saw expansion and military conquest as an unsustainable strategy. So it's not about a lack of capacity or infrastructure, it's all a matter of ideology, political choices and culture.   

       What's more, don't you see that the entire highly industrialised world is now going back to 'sustainability'? It is back looking for the ideals that are the foundations of the very African cultures they called so backwards a few decades ago: social cohesion, sustainable resource use, localisation and anti-capitalist gift economics.   

       Sorry, your theory is wrong, and the proposal based on it is a vile push for more modernity - exactly the thing that nobody wants and needs.   

       What we really need is cataracts on the Rhine, on the Volga, on the Yellow River and on the Amazon. So that we can scale back, and get back to sanity and away from globalisation.
django, Jul 14 2007
  

       [django], if I've understood you correctly, your main point is that being rich, competitive and unsustainable is worse than being poor, backward and unstable. You may be right about this; however, I don't think this invalidates my speculation about why Africa is one rather than the other. It may be that the idea would technically 'work', but the overall outcome would be bad for the reasons already listed in the body of the idea.   

       //Anthropologists have found //...   

       That's interesting; could you supply some links?   

       //the Chinese consciously chose not to conquer and colonize//   

       Maybe I'm being overly cynical here, but wasn't that more to do with maintaining central control than with environmental stability? After all, they had no such qualms in Tibet, Mongolia or Turkestan.   

       //What we really need is cataracts on the Rhine, on the Volga, on the Yellow River and on the Amazon //   

       Wouldn't they just be circumvented by a powerful minority (as the Belgians circumvented the Congo cataracts), while the rest of us would suffer reduced freedom (political as well as economic)?   

       I sympathize with your phrase //a vile push for more modernity //, but I think we are already in the position of Macbeth, when he says:
I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er
  

       We can't go back to an African Eden, and nor can Africa itself; population levels, if nothing else, determine that. What we might be able to do is use the infrastructure which modernity has given us (and which we're using right now) to spread the memes of sustainability - but that's way beyond the scope of this idea.
pertinax, Jul 15 2007
  

       [django], if I've understood you correctly, your main point is that being rich, competitive and unsustainable is worse than being poor, backward and unstable.   

       =======================   

       But why do you think African people are poor, backward and unstable? They are so because of your colonial type of interventions.   

       ========================   

       //You may be right about this; however, I don't think this invalidates my speculation about why Africa is one rather than the other. It may be that the idea would technically 'work', but the overall outcome would be bad for the reasons already listed in the body of the idea.//   

       ========================   

       Sure, if you *want* modernity, then you need to destroy nature, rivers, forests, build railroads, ports, kill a lot of people, develop nukes, etc... The question was: do we want this? More and more people are saying they don't.   

       ========================   

       //Anthropologists have found //... That's interesting; could you supply some links?   

       ========================   

       In his comparative analyses of myths, the great Claude Lévi-Strauss has found that there are 'hot' and 'cold' societies. 'Hot' means modernity: an active view on history, change, "progress", etc... 'Cold' societies are in tune with natural cycles, sustainable, show social cohesion, etc...   

       Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that these 'values' are clearly embedded in the myths, as are their counter-parts. 'Cold' society myths express angst about progress, basically saying "we don't want that because that will destroy us".   

       Likewise, many economic anthropologists have shown that gift economics and the myths that found them, show that it's not that these people don't know systems with capital accumulation; they just don't want it, because that destroys social cohesion.   

       ========================   

       //the Chinese consciously chose not to conquer and colonize// Maybe I'm being overly cynical here, but wasn't that more to do with maintaining central control than with environmental stability? After all, they had no such qualms in Tibet, Mongolia or Turkestan.   

       ========================   

       No, I was talking about the era of the early 15th century, when the Chinese had the technological and military capacity to conquer the entire world; and they explored Asia, Arabia, Africa and the Americas. But, contrary to the Europeans, they refused to colonise, because that's not good from a long-term perspective. Instead, they chose trade. And eventually even autarky.   

       Just trying to show that this is a matter of 'choice'. Too much, modernists try to 'essentialise' and 'naturalise' their destructive ideology - as if we have no choice, as if this is the 'natural' way forward. It''s not.   

       ========================   

       I sympathize with your phrase //a vile push for more modernity //, but I think we are already in the position of Macbeth, when he says: I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er   

       We can't go back to an African Eden, and nor can Africa itself; population levels, if nothing else, determine that. What we might be able to do is use the infrastructure which modernity has given us (and which we're using right now) to spread the memes of sustainability - but that's way beyond the scope of this idea.   

       ========================   

       I agree, but the question is: do we need to destroy more, to ultimately destroy less?   

       [Remember the American general in the Vietnam War: "we had to destroy the village to save it".]   

       You're busy in the Congo, you know, the world's last pristine ecosystem, a vast undisturbed forest. If you open up this system with waterways, you speed up the destruction of this ecosystem.   

       We would better use other tools, such as compensated reduction. We pay the Congolese not to deforest (this is: not to exploit their forests which requires waterways). The carbon stored in the Zairian forest has a huge value. We wealthy Westerners should pay to preserve this. Climate change and carbon markets offer an excellent tool to do so.   

       In short, there are better ways to help the Congolese develop, than to help destroy their country even faster with canals and waterways that will only fuel exploitation.
django, Jul 15 2007
  

       //the world's last pristine ecosystem// All right, I concede that this may be a killer argument. However, out of stubbornness, I will answer some of your other points. Thank you for your continuing patience:   

       //But why do you think African people are poor, backward and unstable? They are so because of your colonial type of interventions.//   

       Well, no (or at least, only in part). Ethiopia, for example, which was never really colonized (unless you count seven years under Mussolini - a fraction of one generation), was itself an empire where one ethnic group dominated its neighbours. It had for a long time several of the attributes of Tsarist Russia (another place rather bedevilled by the constraints of physical geography). Or, to take an example from another part of Africa, the 'sustainable' pre-colonial status quo in what is now Zimbabwe involved the Shona people being held in poor, backward, unstable bondage by the Matabele people, rather as the Helots used to be held down by the Spartans.   

       Thank you for the link to Levi-Strauss; in the extract you linked to I found myself agreeing with what he was saying, even as I was irritated by the style in which he said it. However, the linked passage doesn't seem to expound the 'hot and cold' idea. Because I am too lazy to go away and read Levi-Strauss properly before posting this reply, I just offer this observation: in Ancient Greek culture it is possible to observe a transition from what I imagine Levi-Strauss would have called a 'cold' mythology (as implied by the powerful, pervasive hubris/nemesis myth) to the 'hot' mythology of the Hellenistic period (where gods were often treated with a rather post-modern kind of affectionate contempt). The important thing about this transition is that it was triggered by the realisation by the Greeks that they could get away with it. In other words, their 'cold' mythology was not really a wise and sustainable choice to reject 'hotness', but simply the result of a perception that they had no choice.   

       That begs the question of how many other 'cold' mythologies really are opted into, rather than just passively accepted out of ignorance of the alternative. I don't know enough anthropology to answer that question; maybe if I read Levi-Strauss properly I might find the answer there.   

       When I read the summary about 'gift economics' and 'wealth in people' in your link, I found it rather creepy. It reminded me very strongly of the starkly unequal patronage, slavery and 'paterfamilias' relationships which characterised republican Rome, and which were implicated in the corruption and eclipse of the democratic elements in its constitution. Perhaps the body of the article (not available in that link) paints a different picture.   

       //Just trying to show that this is a matter of 'choice'. //   

       You make a good point there. However, the choices available to us are different from those available to the C15th Chinese, because of the 'Prisoner's Dilemma' element. (The exact form of this dilemma depends on which interpretation of 'us' you choose).   

       //do we need to destroy more, to ultimately destroy less? //   

       I don't know, and so I raised the question for discussion. Thank you for participating in that discussion with such courtesy, [django].
pertinax, Jul 16 2007
  

       Pertinax, of major interest in this context is the Happy Planet Index [see links].   

       Some of the cultures you call 'backwards' rank highest: they succeed in balancing natural resource use, life-expectancy and happiness.   

       All the modern countries you take as a model rank bottom. They are disasters.   

       The Happy Planet Index is produced by the New Economics Foundation, one of the few think tanks that looks at economics as if people and the planet mattered.   

       The NEF just published its European version of the HPI today [link].
django, Jul 16 2007
  

       //All the modern countries you take as a model rank bottom.//   

       I agree that something like GDP is not adequate as a complete account of how well the human race is doing, however, In your link, African countries generally seem to rank lower than European ones in the 'happiness' index as well.   

       The 'backward but happy' countries in the list seem to be mostly tropical islands, too small for long civil wars and too resource-poor to invade, free of famine (stable population size?) with pleasant weather and at no risk of desertification. Unfortunately, I don't think those conditions can be replicated in most of Africa.   

       Also, having lived in Europe and Australia, I find it difficult to believe the ranking of Australia below Europe in happiness - maybe my experience is unrepresentative, though.
pertinax, Jul 16 2007
  

       Well, I count 22 African countries ranking higher than the U.S.   

       But agreed, some African countries rank low, mainly due to low life-expectancy - the result of wars fuelled by... the low-ranking Western countries (U.S., Russia, Europe, Australia).   

       Congo-Brazzaville ranks higher than most Western countries.   

       Congo DR ranks lower, because it has too many natural resources that have fuelled conflicts pushed by Europe and America (82 Euro-American companies were found guilty by the UN Security Council for fuelling the Congo War, which killed 4 million people).   

       Still, I think the HPI is a measure worth using when discussing global economics.
django, Jul 17 2007
  

       // But agreed, some African countries rank low, mainly due to low life-expectancy - the result of wars fuelled by... the low-ranking Western countries (U.S., Russia, Europe, Australia).   

       Unless you're blaming those parties for the spread of AIDS in southern Africa, I think you're giving them a little too much credit there.
jutta, Jul 17 2007
  

       Jutta, are you disputing the findings of the U.N. report? [Link].   

       Are you disputing the impact of colonialism and Western resource wars in Africa? [Link].   

       News just in: President Kabila regrets that Swiss Banks do not want to give back the billions Mobutu stole from the Congolese people and put in their banks. Mobutu - the Euro-American puppy.   

       Kabila 'regrets' this. That's all he can do. He doesn't have an army with which to punish the tirants from Europe and America. Sadly so. [link]
django, Jul 17 2007
  

       [Replying to Jutta's link] Aids is a marginal problem in Central Africa (the region we were discussing) [link].   

       Factors such as lack of access to medical services, food insecurity, malaria, etc... are all far more important. The most important factors - food insecurity and lack of access to health services - are caused by war [link].
django, Jul 17 2007
  

       I don't think we're discussing the same things. I was trying to explain the common decline of life expectancy in the ten worst-rated African countries on the HPI list, many of which are in southern parts of Africa. If you're interpreting that as an alternative explanation for the Congo and Central Africa, or as a denial of your points about war, you're reading something out of it that I didn't put in.   

       Let's leave the links around for other readers to form their own opinions.
jutta, Jul 17 2007
  

       Ah, Jutta, I thought you were already referring back to the topic in general: poverty in Congo/Central Africa. Sorry about my misinterpretation.   

       You're entirely right when it comes to the life-expectancy of countries in Southern Africa as it influences their ranks on the HPI, I'm sure HIV/AIDS has a major impact.   

       Indeed, the top-10 bottom countries qua life-expectancy are all in Southern Africa (with the exception of Liberia). And these countries have the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence.   

       In conclusion, Africa and the cliches about it are so large, that confusion is rampant. My fault too!
django, Jul 17 2007
  

       Look what's happening in Ethiopia (see link).   

       My favourite part of the article is the following:   

       "[...] parts of the region are below sea level and the ocean is only cut off by about a 20-metre block of land in Eritrea."   

       Now, it probably means 20 metres high, really, but if, as I first read it, it means 20 metres *wide*; well, that's just a day's work for a team of miners with a jumbo drill and a ute (US - pickup truck) full of ANFO (or some other explosive if the proximity of the water spoils the ANFO).   

       It is just possible that the new inlet of the sea would match the ethnic frontier between Ethiopians and Somalis (which currently runs deep inside Ethiopia), and would remove one of the root causes of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea by giving Ethiopia a new sea coast of its own. It might also make it more difficult for Ethiopia to maintain a military presence in Somalia, which would be annoying for the US government in the short term, but probably a blessing in disguise.   

       All right, maybe it's still unjustified, but it's more interesting than waiting for continental drift.
pertinax, Jun 29 2010
  

       ... and my *second* favourite part of the article is where it says "we'll have a smaller Africa and a very big island that floats out into the Indian Ocean". Yes, "floats". Somalia is made of styrofoam. You read it here first. Maybe this floating island will then be boarded and held to ransom by pirates.
pertinax, Jun 29 2010
  

       Any comments on James Watt's comments ?
VJW, Jan 08 2012
  

       What comments would those be?
pertinax, Jan 08 2012
  

       Is this the one where everybody spent a week researching the Nike delta ?   

       [edit: Nile.... haw]
FlyingToaster, Jan 08 2012
  

       I think he was mistaken about evaporation.
pocmloc, Jan 08 2012
  

       Sorry, I meant James D Watson..He had his theory on races. It would be intersting to draw a realistic picture of how exactly Africa would be today, had it been left alone. It would be interesting to see Steam engine being independently invented in Africa.
VJW, Jan 08 2012
  

       I think the theory is incorrect. A better argument might be based on human activities and the Sahara region. Once upon a time it used to be grassland. Then humans arrived with herds of goats, that ate the grass and begain the desertification process. This caused people to move from the growing desert zone to the periphery --which was already occupied by other people.   

       Conflicts began, which caused at least some of the conflicted to move farther away from the desert zone, causing more conflicts --the cycle continues to this day. And it is those conflicts that kept Africa from having the long-term stability needed to do great things.   

       So, to the extent this theory is valid, then to fix Africa you need to fix the Sahara --AND rein-in the human population growth, of course. That's a newish factor to the overall story, caused by the influx of various aspects of modern medical technology and the Green Revolution. Obviously, people having too many offspring in one place will create pressure to spread to other places (already occupied), and the conflicts will continue.
Vernon, Jan 08 2012
  

       [Vernon], much as I respect your powers of analysis, I don't think you've applied them very carefully here.   

       How would the Sahara affect southern Africa?   

       How would you account for the fact that the more visibly "advanced" civilizations in Africa (notably Egypt, but also some others) have been in areas close to the Sahara, rather than in areas distant from it?   

       How would you account for the fact that, say, the Gobi desert did not give rise to comparable long-term problems? (Admittedly it did cause problems at certain points in history, but not on the scale required to sustain your point).   

       Can you identify a particular flaw in the theory put forward here, rather than just saying it's incorrect because you have a different theory of your own?
pertinax, Jan 08 2012
  

       [VJW], I have an open mind about Watson's views.   

       My own experience of working with Africans clearly does not match Watson's; some of the most intelligent people I've worked with are black.   

       On the other hand, my own experience of working with Africans is not statistically significant, and it is possible that African conditions, especially those conditions which have given rise to a high degree of genetic diversity within Africa, might have had the kind of negative impact that Watson claims. Then again, they might not.   

       I have a sort of meta-opinion to the effect that, even if Watson is wrong, which he may be, it's a worry that the response to him is primarily political rather than scientific. If he is measuring the wrong things, then his critics ought to suggest better things he could measure*, rather than just say, or imply, "this field of inquiry is out of bounds - don't measure anything around here". I'm all for bringing an understanding of cultural history to the practice of science, but I'm rather against letting that understanding prevent the practice of science.   

       On the other hand again is the fact that Watson seems like a bit of an attention-seeker***, and has written a book called "Avoid boring people". As a long-standing campaigner** for the rights of boring people, I find this offensive.   

       Yes, I know, it's a fairly boring, equivocal opinion, but you did ask.   

       *Maybe they have, and the reporting of the controversy has not reflected this, in which case I retract this point.   

       **Well, sitting down, mostly. And not actually campaigning.   

       ***This matters because inquiry motivated by the desire for attention is somehow less sacred than inquiry motivated by the desire to know the answer to the inquiry. Consider the small child who keeps saying "Why?" not because they want to know why, but because they're just enjoying exasperating the parent.
pertinax, Jan 08 2012
  

       [pertinax] How do you think Africa reallistically will be today, had it been left alone ? It would be an interesting essay competition subject for people on both sides of the issue.
VJW, Jan 08 2012
  

       I disagree, [mp], I disagree. Attention-seeking is *not* a universal motivation - but I admit that's very difficult to prove to someone convinced otherwise.   

       I have a theory about why some people *are*, wrongly, convinced otherwise, but that's another story.   

       [edit] Dang, [mouseposture], that might hold the record for the shortest-lived anno on the bakery! Did you hit "delete" by accident?
pertinax, Jan 08 2012
  

       No, sorry, I thought better of it. Rude of me. Here it is again, revised.   

       Small children asking "Why" make fewer important discoveries than scientists eager to enhance their reputations or collect grant money, true, but the motivation in both cases is a desire for attention. //the desire to know the answer// can be more efficiently satisfied by reading, coursework, etc. than by original research. There are, probably, *some* people making original contributions primarily from that motivation. Tenured mathemeticians probably overrepresented in that group. And some people are obsessed with one particular question to which the answer has not yet been discovered.   

       In the case of scientists, attention-seeking is not a *primary* motivation. It's a sine qua non for being allowed to go on doing research: they don't let you do that unless you publish, gain a reputation, and get grants.
mouseposture, Jan 08 2012
  

       Northern Africa's desertification is a result of plate tectonics.
FlyingToaster, Jan 08 2012
  

       The Nile river allowed the Egyptians to resist most invaders, by supporting an agriculture-based population, which was simply much larger than that of the invading hunter-gatherers. It was not a "transportation" factor.   

       Farther south, I think you will find that the greatest scourge in Africa was malaria, until it was surpassed by overpopulation. By reducing the overall average human lifspan in the region, malaria made it much more difficult for a complex society to maintain continuity across generations.   

       Today, while malaria is still major problem, it is not the cause of as much strife as overpopulation.
Vernon, Jan 08 2012
  

       But how did land-locked countries of Europe manage ? I don't think all of them had navigable rivers.
VJW, Jan 09 2012
  

       I couldn't leave that one alone. Apparently the only European country with neither a coastline nor navigable rivers is Moldavia. Could have missed one, though.
mouseposture, Jan 09 2012
  

       [Vernon],   

       //The Nile river allowed the Egyptians to resist most invaders, by supporting an agriculture-based population, which was simply much larger than that of the invading hunter-gatherers. It was not a "transportation" factor.//   

       Think, for a moment, about what you mean by "the Egyptians". At one time, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were politically and strategically separate. At an earlier time, I daresay that the basic units were much smaller. The navigability of the river (among other things) made it possible for the people living along it to become "The Egyptians", a single civilization, instead of remaining fragmented.   

       The river was probably even more of a transportation factor for the Egyptians than for some other civilizations, because Egypt seems to have produced cities some time before adopting that new-fangled invention, the wheel.   

       //By reducing the overall average human lifspan in the region, malaria made it much more difficult for a complex society to maintain continuity across generations.//   

       Do you think that mean lifespan in medieval Europe was much greater than in malarial Africa?   

       More generally, [Vernon], I think you may be mis-applying Occam's razor. One of the differences between History and the hard sciences is this: that mono-causal explanations of historical processes are generally not adequate. So, unlike physicists, historians are generally not striving towards a Grand Unified Theory. The theory I put forward does not claim to explain everything, certainly not to the exclusion of other theories, but only to explain enough things to be useful.   

       There are good reasons for this difference of approach, which I don't think I can explain clearly at this time in the evening. I am working on a book, which is to include a chapter called "Ockham City Limits", which may explain this point better, but I haven't written that chapter yet.
pertinax, Jan 10 2012
  

       [VJW],   

       A reasonable starting point for speculation about what a counter-factual left-alone Africa would look like might be the state of the African interior when first explored by Europeans. If we suppose that it hadn't changed much in the couple of centuries preceding those first contacts, then it's a reasonable guess that the next couple of centuries of being left along wouldn't have made much difference either.
pertinax, Jan 10 2012
  

       [pertinax], just becase I called the people living along the Nile "Egyptians", that doesn't mean they called themselves that, at the time the Sahara Desert was forming and causing tribes of herders to invade other places. The fact remains that the Nile river allowed a large population to be supported, via farming, along much of its length. Therefore those people had the population needed to successfully resist (or absorb) invaders. Very simple.   

       Yes, the death rate from malaria is very significant, because why should you think that Africans DIDN'T have all those OTHER factors causing early deaths, that Europeans had?   

       Keep in mind that early civilizations everywhere tended to do one-on-one teaching. So, if the apprentice dies of malaria, the teacher has to get another one. (Are you aware that even as-of-a-few-years-ago, malaria rates exceeded 100% in some places, due to re-infections after patients are cured?)   

       If the teacher dies of malaria, the student is left ignorant. Unless the subject being taught is simple and not complex. Which means, like I previously wrote, it was rather difficult for early complex civilizations, in central and southern Africa, to maintain continuity across generations.
Vernon, Jan 10 2012
  

       //because why should you think that Africans DIDN'T have all those OTHER factors causing early deaths, that Europeans had//   

       Because they didn't have crowded, insanitary towns, with plague rats? Because they didn't starve or die of pneumonia when a hard winter came around?   

       Anyway, there are other parts of the world that have malaria, which got "civilized" much more effectively than Africa. Ancient Sicily, for example, was a good place to catch malaria (if I remember my Thucydides correctly), but that didn't stop it from becoming a major centre of technological advance. India has mosquitos, and a huge record of civilization-building. I believe it has deserts, too, for that matter.
pertinax, Jan 11 2012
  
      
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