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Westerners are prone to silly generalizations about Africa. We forget that it is geographically huge, culturally complex, and linguistically diverse. The sheer immensity of the continent is belied by its apparent size on maps like the Gall-Peters projection. There, it assumes modest proportions, seemingly smaller than North America, its surface intersected with neatly drawn borders demarking 53 discrete nation-states. Their geographical boundaries can be traced to an 1884 Berlin Conference where—with nary an African present—European powers neatly carved up the entire continent among themselves. The simplicity of the European scheme has obscured and exacerbated more complex on-the-ground realities.

The most polyglot of all continents—home to some 2,100 "mother tongues"—is notorious for its "vampire" states, savage civil wars, overwhelming poverty and pandemics, and rickety civil, transportation, and communication infrastructures. Africa—in the words of Robert Guest, former Africa editor of The Economist—is "the Shackled Continent."

Despite decades of prodigious "development" efforts fueled by close to $600 billion in aid since the 1960s, living conditions continue to decline:

  • Of the 40 countries at the bottom of the World Bank's human-development index, 33 are African.

  • Africa's estimated income per person is less than 5 percent that of the United States's.

The legacies of slavery, colonialism, and globalization tell part of the story. But many of Africa's wounds—some say most of them—are self-inflicted. Exploited by Arab and European outsiders who extracted as much as they could before moving on, the continent continues to be led by home-grown political predators whose kleptocratic rule, ...

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November 2007

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