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Today the Democratic Republic of the Congo turns fifty.  That half century is hard to summarize in general terms; it produced Joseph Mobutu, but it also produced Valentin Mudimbe.  Summary is much easier, however, in terms of economic development: D.R. Congo has gone back to the Bronze Age.

Fifty years ago today, the average person in D.R. Congo earned enough per year to buy about $1,250 worth of stuff at today’s U.S. prices.  Fast forward to today, and that figure has fallen to about $420.  

A thousand years ago, when the Holy Roman Empire ruled in Europe and the Song Dynasty in China, the average person in Africa could buy a standard of living worth about $710.  A thousand years before that, it was $790.  Today’s Congolese are much poorer.

These are rough estimates.  But they are the best available, and even with a wide margin of error, they suggest that the typical person in D. R. Congo today has a material living standard little better than that experienced by people living in the same place back when Socrates and the Buddha walked the earth.  There have certainly been advances in the Congo: Due partly to improved health technologies, the average Congolese lives five years longer today than at independence, and primary school enrollment has gone from 72% to over 85% now. But the big picture is enduring material destitution.

This stunning example suggests at least five lessons about long-run development:

  1. Lasting development is not primarily about money. From the beginning, D.R. Congo was richly endowed with copper, coal, coltan, gold, diamonds, tin, and uranium, and was the recipient of several billion dollars in foreign assistance over decades. All of this has done exactly nothing to raise living standards for average Congolese.  This does not mean that “aid failed” there in general, sweeping terms; for example, foreign aid caused Pierre Ziegler’s successful annihilation of smallpox in what was then Zaire. But it does mean that even abundant cash need not affect long-term development in the slightest.  This is why my CGD colleagues Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik, and Arvind Subramanian have called for much less focus on aid, despite the many virtues of aid.
  2. Individual leaders matter enormously. While Joseph Mobutu was raiding Zaire’s treasury to charter the Concorde, Seretse Khama in Botswana was investing heavily in infrastructure, health, and education.  Decades later, Botswana is a middle-income country. A research frontier in economics is to understand the influence of individual leaders better. Ben Jones and Ben Olken have shown that individual leaders affect growth, but it’s less clear exactly how they do. A new article by George Ayittey offers a spirited and debatable catalog of today’s worst leaders.
  3. The big story isn’t the crisis. Today’s crisis is a small blip among the forces that determine who in the world is truly rich and truly poor. Even the worst case scenario for this crisis will not lead people in developed countries to face the economic struggle that almost every Congolese person must face. Indeed, as I point out in a new op-ed, countries like Congo that haven’t lost much in this crisis have more to worry about in the long term than those that have lost.
  4. Labor mobility is a crucial route out of poverty. Much of my recent research is on the effects of labor mobility on migrants and their families. Along with co-authors Claudio Montenegro and Lant Pritchett, I’ve shown that low-skill Central Africans moving to the U.S. quickly improve their incomes by several hundred percent. This, combined with generations of decline in incomes in D.R. Congo, means that most Congolese who have achieved a decent standard of living did so by leaving the Congo, not by anything that they or any outsider did inside the Congo. When I point this out, a common response is that migration “can’t be the answer” for Congolese people.  That’s a puzzling sentiment, because migration has typically and lastingly improved the incomes of those who left, and because nothing that anyone has done in thousands of years has typically and lastingly improved the incomes of those who did not leave. People who feel that way must believe that they have some “answer” that no one else in decades or centuries has tried or thought of.  That’s certainly an opinion to be skeptical of.  At the margin—that is, for the next Congolese who will get new opportunity—international mobility deserves to be front and center in the portfolio of policies to assist development.
  5. (Update July 1) Debt relief, by itself, helps little. The IMF approved billions in debt relief for D.R. Congo yesterday, and the World Bank will probably follow suit today. Unfortunately, Nicolas Depetris Chauvin and Aart Kraay have found little evidence that past episodes of debt relief improved growth, institutions, or public finances in the countries that received it. An important reason for this is that in many cases—including Congo’s—few stakeholders expected much of the debt to be repaid anyway, so the arrival of formal debt relief does little to change anyone’s behavior. The central challenge lies in preventing unsustainable debt accumulation going forward, not in burying debt that is already defunct. (HT to Ben Leo)

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Sources: Historical income per capita figures come from Angus Maddison, the great economic historian and “chiffrephile”, who sadly passed away in April. I have adjusted Maddison’s 1990-dollar figures to May 2010 US dollars using the U.S. Consumer Price Index. Figures for life expectancy and 2007 gross primary enrollment come from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. 1960 gross primary enrollment is from the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook 1970.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.