Subject Material

Black Man’s Burden

Published: 15.09.2011, Updated: 04.03.2017
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What would you reckon as the gravest problem the world is faced with today? Economic crisis? Global warming? International terrorism? If asked, most people probably would suggest one of the three, mainly due to what media focus on. If the same question was put to the UN Security Council – the answer would be different. Both the UN and most humanitarian organisations would agree that hunger and poverty in developing countries, particularly in Africa, top the list of world challenges. So why does it seem so impossible to effectively attack this malicious situation?

These words appear in the text. Check them out and make sure you understand them:


legacy  randomly  negotiate  dodgy  shady  former  to allocate  to boost  abundant  abject famine  to sustain  to coincide


Fishermen bring their catch with boats ashore, taken on March 9, 2011 in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. 50 years ago, on 04/Fishermen bring their catch with boats ashore, taken on March 9, 2011 in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. 50 years ago, on 04/21/61, Sierra Leone gained the independence from Great Britain. Since 2002, after a decade of bloody civil war, the country started with the rebuilding of the society and coming to terms with the past. Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is ranked on the 158th place (out of 169) in the Human Development Index 2010.
Fotograf: Thomas Schulze

Black Man’s Burden 

On a UN ranking of so-called “failed countries” seven out of the top ten are African countries. These countries share some features which may explain why hunger and poverty are prevailing.


The European colonization has left a legacy which to some extent counts for the situation. The continent was randomly split up into countries regardless of cultures and languages, and the colonies were ruled by a small European elite. For example, more than forty million Africans were administered by little more than one thousand British, and 728 Belgians controlled all of Congo. A result of this was that the Europeans had to negotiate with tribe leaders and clans, and bribes and dodgy deals were necessary. This shady political culture continued in post-colonial Africa. At the time of independence the African states were at a lower development level than for example the former colonies in Asia.

Globalisation and Democracy

International trends from the mid-1980s were for many African countries a chance to establish a healthy economy and stable rule. But loans from The World Bank and The International Money Fund along with aid from different agencies were given as budget support, which allowed the national governments to allocate funds into so-called sovereignty expenses, e.g. the military and the state administration, and not welfare measures. But during the 90s the World Bank set political reforms as a condition for debt arrangements. Still the welfare development was slow. In 1989, most African countries were either one-party states or military dictatorships. Three years later most had multi party systems and democratic elections. But the transition opened for political unrest and violent internal conflicts, mostly along ethnic lines, that the weak governments were unable to control.

Corruption and underinvestment

In international corruption indexes (Transparency International) African countries receive very poor rating. This fact makes it hard for these countries to attract foreign investment that could boost economic growth. It is a paradox that people in countries with abundant natural resources continue to live in abject poverty. But this is mostly due to corruption. In many African states there is a political elite which is supported by clans or groupings that in return for their support receive protection and profitable contracts. Investing in health care, infrastructure, education and measures against famine would improve living conditions for the people, but it is not very profitable, and it would strengthen the political opposition, the leaders claim. The lust for power overrules considerations for the people. The system is characterised by inefficiency and uncertain conditions in work life and ownership along with lack of will to invest and create jobs. In some African countries the unemployment rate is up to 60 per cent. Underinvestment sustains profit for the leaders as it will keep real income low, and in that way the political elite gets rich while the people stay poor. Kenya has a very low growth and productivity, but in relation to the average income per capita it has the world’s richest leaders.

Future Prospects

In August 2011 there was a conference in Botswana on anti-corruption strategies which was attended by fifteen African countries (but without the presence of Somalia, Congo and Chad). The conference concluded that fighting corruption is Africa’s biggest challenge. The world’s leading aid agencies have also realised that underdevelopment is not only an economic issue; it is just as much a situation that has to be confronted politically. New world super-power China has over the last decade shown an increasing interest in trade and investment in several African countries. It is officially estimated that China’s investment in Africa will rise by 70 per cent to 50 billion USD by 2015. In many ways China could have a positive influence on Africa. Firstly because their economic interests coincide; what Africa needs China can offer in a win-win situation, but more importantly, the Chinese new open market policy and creation of more jobs may force African leaders to change their underinvestment practice which in turn will benefit the people.


Discussion, research and further studies

  1. Why do you think the democratic movement in many African countries has opened up for so many violent internal conflicts?
  2. The slave trade is not mentioned in the article. Do you think that this trade has had anything to say for the development of the African peoples and their situation today?
  3. Comment on the title of the article. If you don’t see the irony, go on the net and find out. (Key word: Rudyard Kipling)
  4. Some countries, including African ones see the Chinese activity in Africa as a negative element. What do you think their arguments are? (Go on the net and look for Chinese investments in Africa and find out.)
  5. Go on the net and find out about corruption world-wide. (Key word: Transparency International)
  6. Why do you think that Somalia, Congo and Chad did not attend the anti-corruption conference? (Find out more about these countries.)
  7. Choose one of the countries that are mentioned in the article and do an in-depth study of its economic and social situation. Present your project in class.
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