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Malthus in Africa August 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, history, politics.

Clark’s recent is getting many people debating his hypothesis that lower life expectancy of poor and higher of the rich caused downward mobility in pre-Industrial England and these genetic transmission of middle-class values laid ground for the industrial revolution. See some reviews/notes here (Dani Rodrik).

Now Clark has something to say about Africa in a rather presumptuously titled post :

Before the Industrial Revolution all societies were caught in the same Malthusian Trap that imprisons Africa today. Living standards stagnated because any improvement caused births to exceed deaths. The resulting population growth, pressing on fixed land resources, inevitably pushed incomes back down to subsistence.

But living conditions did vary across pre-industrial societies. Perversely, rich societies were those where nature or man created high death rates. In such settings living conditions could be good as long as the population did not grow. In the Malthusian era, what is now vice in economic policy — violence, poor public health, war, inequality — was virtue in terms of living standards. And what is now virtue, vice.

If this were true, what moral quandary it would be. Clark then elaborates with the Ugandan example. Now, I have read quite a few criticisms of Jeffrey sachs’ Africa plan but this has not been one of them.

If Mr. Sachs’ Millennium Project succeeds where most of its effort is concentrated, in reducing mortality, then it will further erode living standards. In Uganda, for example, at incomes that are the equivalent of $3 a person a day, the population is still growing at 3.5% per year. Given the heavy dependence of Uganda on agriculture and natural resources, population pressure has ensured that even with improved crop yields, incomes have stagnated over the past 40 years.

Fourteen percent of children born in Uganda die before the age of five. If the Millennium Project reduces such deaths to American levels, that alone will increase the population growth to 4.2% a year. Without sustained economic growth, this is just a recipe for more miserable living conditions.

Of course, lest Clark be misunderstood thanks to my selective quotations here, he does not advocate that we let people die. Instead he argues for more growth via services and industrialization. Of course, how do we achieve that is question that is still not certain.

Update : Here is an interesting finding attributed Clark.

I will add that Clark’s point that the typical humans of 1800 were poorer and less well off than those of 10,000 BCE is an important insight, and it is born out by decades of analysis of remains which show that farmers are on average underfed and nutrient deprived vis-a-vis hunter-gatherers.

And thats from here. Ten questions for Clark here.



1. Achala - August 31, 2007

Did you mean to say “…he does [not] advocate…”?

2. Sharath Rao - August 31, 2007

Oh yeah, …corrected that. Thanks as usual 🙂

3. Achala - September 1, 2007

You’re welcome as usual 🙂

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