Almost all the literature on the economic past of Sub-Saharan Africa has aimed at explaining, directly or indirectly, why the sub-continent is relatively poor. At the end of the colonial period, which for most African countries was about 1960, it was conventionally assumed that very little had changed in African economic history, especially before what, for most of the continent, was the relatively short period of colonial rule. The focus on poverty as the problem requiring explanation sometimes obscures other aspects of African economic history, such as the achievements of African farmers, traders and states, including improvements in food security, and episodes of economic growth. On the whole, however, the historical research carried out over the last fifty to sixty years (since Dike 1956) has used these achievements as means both of qualifying the notions of general poverty and stasis, and as sources of insight into why the overall economic development of the region has not been faster. This chapter begins by introducing alternative explanations of Africa's relative poverty, and then traces the history of poverty and economic development in African economies over successive periods. Finally, we will review the overall descriptions of African economies as historically static and therefore remaining poor, and comment on the major interpretations.
The main explanations for Africa's historic – if relative – poverty can be grouped in different ways: perhaps most fundamentally, external versus internal, and institutional versus resources. The two most influential strands of external explanation for Africa's historic poverty, dependency theory and its rational-choice counterpart, are themselves institutional, in the sense of focussing on the way resources are controlled, organized and exploited, rather than on the resources, natural and human, as such. Dependency theory, which was brought to Africa in the 1970s (Rodney 1972, Amin 1976, see also Wallerstein 1976) is the view that the development of the West was simultaneously – and by the same process – the underdevelopment of the Rest. A rational-choice counterpart of dependency theory was provided by a group of growth economists in the 2000s (Acemoglu et al. 2001, 2002, Acemoglu and Robinson 2010, Nunn 2008). Both externalist interpretations are ultra-Eurocentric, attributing Africa's fate to European decisions: during the external slave trades (the largest of which was carried on in European and American ships rather than by North African desert caravans or Arab dhows), and then under colonial rule.