Co-blogger Nathan Smith’s plea for someone to write a history of borders got me thinking about Africa and how its borders were drawn. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 formalized what has come to be known as the “Scramble for Africa“, a process through which contemporary African borders were drawn. And as many researchers have shown, Africa’s borders were largely drawn in an arbitrary manner with little regard for the interests of the people who would later fall under the jurisdiction of those same borders. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou summarize the Scramble for Africa thus [footnotes omitted and my own emphasis]:
The key consideration of European leaders [in drawing up Africa’s borders] was to preserve the “status quo” preventing conﬂict among Europeans for Africa (as the memories of the European wars of the 18th-19th century were still alive). To this objective the Europeans divided areas and drew borders in maps, without taking into account local conditions and the ethnic composition of the areas. African leaders were not invited and had no say on the drawing of political boundaries. Moreover, European leaders were in such a rush that they didn’t wait for the new information arriving from explorers, geographers, and missionaries.
There is little disagreement among historians that the scramble for the continent was to a great extent artiﬁcial (see Asiwaju (1985) and Englebert (2009) for references). As the British prime minister at the time Lord Salisbury put it, “we have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever tord; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” Asiwaju (1985) summarizes that “the study of European archives supports the accidental rather than a conspiratorial theory of the marking of African boundaries.” In line with the historical evidence, Alesina, Easterly, and Matuszeski (2011) document that eighty percent of African borders follow latitudinal and longitudinal lines, more than in any other part of the world.
A direct effect of the Scramble for Africa was the partitioning of ethnic groups, many of which had existed as unitary “nation-states” for many of years. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou quantify this partitioning effect thus:
Quantifying the effects of the Scramble for Africa requires identifying the partitioned groups. To do so we use anthropological data from the pioneering work of George Peter Murdock (1959), who has mapped the spatial distribution of 834 ethnicities at the time of colonisation in the mid/late 19th century. [We] classify as partitioned groups those ethnicities with at least 10% of their total surface area belonging to more than one country. There are 231 ethnic groups with at least 10% of their historical homeland falling into more than one country. When we use a more restrictive threshold of 20% there are 164 ethnicities partitioned across the national border.
Our procedure identifies most major partitioned ethnic groups. For example, the Maasai have been split between Kenya (62%) and Tanzania (38%), the Anyi between Ghana (58%) and the Ivory Coast (42%), and the Chewa between Mozambique (50%), Malawi (34%), and Zimbabwe (16%). We also calculate the probability that a randomly chosen pixel of the homeland of an ethnic group falls into different countries. The ethnic groups with the highest score in this index are the Malinke, which are split into six different countries; the Ndembu, which are split between Angola, Zaire, and Zambia; and the Nukwe, which are split between Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Botswana.
Another direct effect of the Scramble for Africa was the mishmash of different ethnic groups under a single border. The degree of such mishmash can be quantified by calculating an ethnic fractionalization index for a country, with the index ranging from zero to one. An index closer to one implies that a particular country is very ethnically diverse in the sense that the probability that two randomly picked individuals belong to the same ethnic group is very low. Using the indices calculated by Alesina et al., the average ethnic fractionalization index for sub-Saharan Africa is 0.65 with a median of 0.73. On the other hand, the average for Western Europe is 0.20 with a median of 0.12. The top 5 African countries with the highest indices are Uganda (0.93), Liberia (0.91), Madagascar (0.88), Congo DR (0.87) and the Republic of Congo (0.87). In Western Europe’s case the top 5 are Belgium (0.56), Switzerland (0.53), Luxembourg (0.53), Spain (0.42) and Germany (0.17). If the top 5 European countries were in Africa, they would rank 37th, 38th,39th, 42nd and 51st respectively in terms of ethnic fractionalization. The fact that Western European countries are not as ethnically diverse as African countries should not be surprising. The process of nation-state formation was more systematic in Western Europe with the result that the nation-state formed around less ethnically heterogeneous groups.
The effects of Africa’s arbitrary border formation have not been benign, as one would expect. In a now famous scholarly article from 1997, Easterly and Levine showed that Africa’s dismal post-independence economic performance was largely driven by the high degree of ethnic fractionalization. The authors showed that “ethnic [fractionalization] was closely associated with low schooling, underdeveloped financial systems, distorted foreign exchange markets, and insufficient infrastructure”. And this was driven by the fact that “[ethnic fractionalization] leads to rent-seeking behavior and reduces the consensus for public goods, creating long-run growth tragedies” (my italics). Even more tragic, recent work by Michalopoulos and Papaioannou shows that the random partitioning of ethnic groups explains much of the continent’s civil wars since the 1960s. Their work shows that “civil conflict intensity, as reflected in casualties and duration, is approximately 25% higher in areas where partitioned ethnicities reside (as compared to the homelands of ethnicities that have not been separated)”. The groups that have been particularly impacted by this are “the Afar and the Esa, which during the period from 1970 to 2005 have experienced five civil wars…[T]he Afar being partitioned between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, and the Esa being split between Ethiopia and Somalia”. And the effects are not only limited to partitioned ethnic groups: “Tribal areas adjacent to the ethnic homeland of partitioned groups also experience more civil wars, which tend to last longer and be more devastating. [E]stimates imply that an ethnic group residing adjacent to a partitioned ethnic homeland is on average 5% more likely to experience civil conflict”. And civil conflicts have led to the death of millions of people in Africa and to the displacement of many more.
One can easily imagine that a different border configuration that, for instance took into account the historical interests of different ethnic groups, might have kept at a minimum some of the problems highlighted in the previous paragraph. And this is why I believe that global open borders can go a long way in rectifying some of the consequences of the Scramble for Africa. Under open borders, individuals belonging to certain ethnic groups or entire ethnic groups can easily relocate to countries that the individual or the ethnic group indentifies with or to countries that are likely to guarantee the safety of the individual or his group. (In this post, I showed that the fact that the US has open borders between states made it easier for targetted ethnic/racial groups to migrate elsewhere). Currently the costs of emigrating, even within Africa, are substantial. Very often those on the receiving end of ethnic conflicts are not allowed to easily intergrate into the neighbouring countries to which they run to but are instead placed in refugee camps known for their notoriety. Similarly, those individuals or groups seeking a better life economically in a neighbouring country are required to obtain a dossier of documents, most of which are costly to obtain, before crossing the border to begin the employment search. Those who are unable to obtain these documents resort to risky methods to get themselves across (Update: for more on this last point, see John Lee’s post titled Risking death to get into South Africa).
Some might object that whereas global open borders might lead to a reduction in ethnic diversity in Africa, for instance, they might, on the other hand, lead to an increase in ethnic diversity in certain parts of the developed world such as Western Europe or the United States. And with ethnic diversity increasing, the very problems that open borders were meant to correct in Africa might crop up in the West. This fear, however, is not borne out by research. An exhaustive literature survey by Alesina and La Ferrara finds that “rich democratic societies work well with [ethnic] diversity, in the case of the United States very well interms of growth and productivity”. This result seems to run through institutions. The presently developed countries are developed largely because their initially homogeneous populations built a consensus around establishing a set of inclusive institutions. (It is this process of consensus building that was likely short-circuited in Africa’s case during the Scramble for Africa). And these institutions are unlikely to change in the face of increased diversity because institutions, once established, tend to persist. And it goes without saying that the types of individuals or types of ethnic groups that are likely to relocate to the West are the kinds of individuals or kinds of ethnic groups that identify with the West’s way of life, including its institutions.
UPDATE: Co-bloggers Vipul Naik and Nathan Smith have previously addressed, in some great detail, the relationship between immigration, immigrants and institutions here, here and here.
- Imaginary lines: the borders of Southeast Asia and the Nusantara by John Lee.
- How my day in Wagah led me to rethink borders by Anonymous Blogger.