Do Sub-Saharan African countries have a better quality of life than the West in the 1950s?

It may sound like a strange question. Many Westerners still have an image of Sub-Saharan Africa as an underdeveloped place where people live in huts and hunt with spears like in the early 20th century. But even if some tribes of hunter-gatherers survive in isolated parts of the continent, this is by and wide a bygone image of Africa. Nowadays you are more likely to see flashy new skyscrapers than wooden huts.

For example this is the 300m-high Pinnacle Tower in Nairobi, Kenya.

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This is the skyline of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is poor even by African standards (it ranks 33rd out of 54 countries for GDP per capita).

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This is Luanda, Angola.

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Here is Gaborone in Botswana.

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Maputo, Mozambique.

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I could continue like that, but you get the idea. What interests me in this thread is to compare the actual, measurable data relating to quality of life in African countries today and compare them with Western countries in the 1950s.

1) Child mortality rate

One of the best indicator that a country is becoming developed is the reduction in child mortality. I checked the present and historical data on Our World in Data. Here is the historical data for major Western countries between 1930 and 1960. I skipped the WWII years as there was either no data or it was higher than it should have been because of the war.

Country1930193519501960
Romania28.6%31.2%18.1%8.7%
Poland23.0%20.0%11.9%6.5%
Spain21.6%17.2%10.3%5.5%
Italy16.6%15.1%8.9%5.2%
Germany12.2%14.70%4.3%
USA7.5%3.7%3.0%
France10.9%9.2%5.7%2.8%
UK8.9%8.1%3.8%2.7%
Australia6.4%5.4%3.2%2.5%

Now let's have a look at African countries today (2021 data).

Niger11.5%
Somalia11.2%
Nigeria11.1%
Chad10.7%
Sierra Leone10.5%
Central African Republic10.0%
Guinea9.9%
South Sudan9.9%
Mali9.7%
Benin8.4%
Burkina Faso8.3%
Democratic Republic of Congo7.9%
Equatorial Guinea7.7%
Liberia7.6%
Cote d'Ivoire7.5%
Guinea-Bissau7.4%
Lesotho7.3%
Cameroon7.0%
Mozambique7.0%
Angola6.9%
Madagascar6.6%
Togo6.3%
Haiti5.9%
Zambia5.8%
Sudan5.5%
Djibouti5.4%
Eswatini5.3%
Burundi5.3%
Comoros5.0%
Zimbabwe5.0%
Gambia4.8%
Tanzania4.7%
Ethiopia4.7%
Ghana4.4%
Congo4.3%
Uganda4.2%
Malawi4.2%
Mauritania4.0%
Gabon4.0%
Rwanda3.9%
Namibia3.9%
Senegal3.9%
Eritrea3.8%
Kenya3.7%
Botswana3.5%
South Africa3.3%
Sao Tome and Principe1.5%
Cape Verde1.4%

Niger has the highest child mortality in Africa today. Yet it is already lower than Poland in 1950. As of 2021, only five African countries have worse child mortality rates than Spain in 1950. The United States had a rate of 3.7% in 1950, which is like Kenya today. As late as 1960 Germany still had a child mortality rate of 4.3%, which is like Congo in 2021 and worse than 13 African countries today. Almost every African country have less child mortality now than Central and Eastern Europe in the 1950s (when the baby boomer generation was born). Romania only fell under 4% in 1977 and under 3% in 1992!

2) GDP per capita

The most common measurement of economic development is the GDP per capita, ideally at purchasing power parity (PPP). Here is the historical data (at PPP) from Wikipedia for major European countries and the USA.

Country195019601973
USA$9,561$18,057$26,602
France$5,271$11,792$20,441
UK$6,939$13,780$19,168
Germany$3,881$12,282$19,074
Italy$3,502$9,430$16,950
Spain$2,189$5,037$11,638
ex-USSR$2,841$6,288$9,658

And here is the data for African countries in 2022 (also at PPP).

23px-Flag_of_Seychelles.svg.png
Seychelles
29,837
23px-Flag_of_Libya.svg.png
Libya
23,356
23px-Flag_of_Mauritius.svg.png
Mauritius
22,240
23px-Flag_of_Botswana.svg.png
Botswana
19,287
23px-Flag_of_Equatorial_Guinea.svg.png
Equatorial Guinea
18,127
20px-Flag_of_Gabon.svg.png
Gabon
15,597
23px-Flag_of_South_Africa.svg.png
South Africa
14,420
23px-Flag_of_Algeria.svg.png
Algeria
13,715
23px-Flag_of_Egypt.svg.png
Egypt
13,316
23px-Flag_of_Tunisia.svg.png
Tunisia
11,594
23px-Flag_of_Morocco.svg.png
Morocco
10,041
23px-Flag_of_Eswatini.svg.png
Eswatini
9,815
23px-Flag_of_Namibia.svg.png
Namibia
9,805
23px-Flag_of_Cape_Verde.svg.png
Cape Verde
7,740
23px-Flag_of_Angola.svg.png
Angola
7,360
23px-Flag_of_Ghana.svg.png
Ghana
6,500
23px-Flag_of_Kenya.svg.png
Kenya
6,178
23px-Flag_of_C%C3%B4te_d%27Ivoire.svg.png
Ivory Coast
5,939
23px-Flag_of_Djibouti.svg.png
Djibouti
5,925
23px-Flag_of_Mauritania.svg.png
Mauritania
5,591
23px-Flag_of_Nigeria.svg.png
Nigeria
5,459
23px-Flag_of_S%C3%A3o_Tom%C3%A9_and_Pr%C3%ADncipe.svg.png
São Tomé and Príncipe
4,445
23px-Flag_of_Sudan.svg.png
Sudan
4,217
23px-Flag_of_Cameroon.svg.png
Cameroon
4,064
23px-Flag_of_Senegal.svg.png
Senegal
3,768
23px-Flag_of_Benin.svg.png
Benin
3,767
23px-Flag_of_Zambia.svg.png
Zambia
3,623
23px-Flag_of_the_Republic_of_the_Congo.svg.png
Republic of Congo
3,616
23px-Flag_of_the_Comoros.svg.png
Comoros
3,284
23px-Flag_of_Tanzania.svg.png
Tanzania
2,932
23px-Flag_of_Guinea.svg.png
Guinea
2,878
23px-Flag_of_Lesotho.svg.png
Lesotho
2,682
23px-Flag_of_Ethiopia.svg.png
Ethiopia
2,599
23px-Flag_of_Rwanda.svg.png
Rwanda
2,494
23px-Flag_of_Burkina_Faso.svg.png
Burkina Faso
2,461
23px-Flag_of_Mali.svg.png
Mali
2,447
23px-Flag_of_Zimbabwe.svg.png
Zimbabwe
2,444
23px-Flag_of_The_Gambia.svg.png
The Gambia
2,433
23px-Flag_of_Uganda.svg.png
Uganda
2,397
23px-Flag_of_Togo.svg.png
Togo
2,380
23px-Flag_of_Guinea-Bissau.svg.png
Guinea-Bissau
2,057
23px-Flag_of_Sierra_Leone.svg.png
Sierra Leone
1,816
23px-Flag_of_Malawi.svg.png
Malawi
1,658
23px-Flag_of_Madagascar.svg.png
Madagascar
1,635
23px-Flag_of_Eritrea.svg.png
Eritrea
1,625
23px-Flag_of_Chad.svg.png
Chad
1,590
23px-Flag_of_Liberia.svg.png
Liberia
1,552
23px-Flag_of_Mozambique.svg.png
Mozambique
1,342
18px-Flag_of_Niger.svg.png
Niger
1,309
23px-Flag_of_Somalia.svg.png
Somalia
1,302
23px-Flag_of_South_Sudan.svg.png
South Sudan
1,234
20px-Flag_of_the_Democratic_Republic_of_the_Congo.svg.png
Democratic Republic of the Congo
1,218
23px-Flag_of_the_Central_African_Republic.svg.png
Central African Republic
1,020
23px-Flag_of_Burundi.svg.png
Burundi
793

Following the Second World War, the United States was the richest country in the world and enjoyed the highest GDP per capita by a large margin (even well ahead of Canada and Australia, which didn't suffer more from WWII than the USA). Yet, 13 African countries are now richer than Americans in 1950. The Seychelles even outdo the US in 1973, before the first oil shock.

Even if we exclude North African countries, island countries and South Africa (which has a substantial White minority), there are still countries like Botswana and Gabon that have a higher GDP per capita now than any Western countries in the 1950s and any European countries until the mid to late 1960s.

Only the poorest African countries like Liberia, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic are still poorer now than Spain in 1950.

Put another way, back in 1950 Americans were as rich/poor as present-day Namibians, Britons were like Ghanans, the French like Nigerians, Germans like Senegalese, and Italians like Zambians. But that's just money. Obviously technology has evolved a lot since 1950 and even with the same income as Europeans in 1950, modern Africans have access to mobile phone, Internet, Netflix and plenty of other techs an services than were unimaginable in 1950 Europe or America.

3) Percentage of telephone owners

If we look at communications, even richer Western countries were rather underdeveloped in 1950 compared to present-day Africa.

As was often the case in the mid 20th century, the US was first worldwide by a wide margin with 37% of households with a telephone in 1937, 62% in 1950 and 78% in 1960 (source). It's hard to find data about other countries before 1960. This article in French states that only 8% of French households had a phone line in 1954 and 15% in 1968. This is ridiculously low. This article in German explains that only 14% of German households were equipped with a telephone in 1960. According to the statistics of the Italian government a mere 6% of Italian households had a phone in 1960. It reached 15% in 1973, 25% in 1982, and 40% in 1992.

Most African people bypassed landlines entirely and adopted mobile phones in the last 25 years. I found this detailed report on the mobile economy of Africa, which gives stats for all regions of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). There were 515 million mobile phone users is SSA in 2021, which represented 46% of the population. By 2025 50% of SS Africans will have a mobile phone subscription. This is in a continent where nearly half of the population is under 18 years old, which is to say that most adults have a mobile phone. About 60% of mobile phones in Africa are smartphones with full Internet connectivity. This is way more advanced that anything in any Western country until even the 1990s. When it comes to technology and communications, modern Africans are clearly in the 21st century and enjoy much better standards than Westerners in the mid or late 20th century.

4) Life expectancy

All this is well, but Africa is a disease-ridden place full of malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, diarrheal diseases and even ebola, so life expectancy must be short, right? Wrong. That's once again a rather outdated view of the continent. Polio has been completely eliminated. Most people are vaccinated against the worst diseases and malaria, for which there is no 100% effective vaccine, is receding fast.

Let's once again compare with the situation in the West in the middle of the 20th century. Between 1930 and 1960 Australians had the highest life expectancy (well actually overtaken by Switzerland and the UK from 1954).

Country1930193519501960
Australia64.965.069.071.0
UK60.862.068.670.9
France56.858.366.470.4
USA59.660.968.169.8
Germany61.566.869.2
Italy55.256.265.769.2
Spain49.352.661.869.2
Russia36.539.657.268.3
Poland59.167.8
Romania62.266.0

Here is the life expectancy of Sub-Saharan African countries in 2022.


The average life expectancy for all Africa stood at 64.11 years in 2022, which is similar to the European average in 1950. Africans have come a long way as in 1930 the average life expectancy in Africa was about 28 years! It has more than doubled since then.

As you can see, in the 1930s life expectancy in Russia and Spain was way worse than in the worst African countries today. Even Italian, French, German, British and American people in 1930 could hope to live until 55 to 60 years old in average, which is like the bottom 10 countries in Africa today. So most Africans today undeniably live several years longer than Westerners in 1930.

By 1950 life expectancy in Western Europe and the USA had risen to between 62 and 69 years old, which is the average for Africa today.

In the richer part of the Western world people lived until 69 or 70 years old in 1960, which is the same as in Rwanda today (yes, the country that suffered a terrible genocide in 1994, only a generation ago).

In 1960, Romanians lived 66 years, Serbians 64 years and Albanians 54 years - all less long than Ethiopians and Eritreans today! In fact, only the Central African Republic has a lower life expectancy today than Albania in 1960. Now Albanians can hope to live to 79 years old. Things can change quickly (and they do).

Life expectancy is rising so fast in Africa that places like the Seychelles, Mauritius and Cabo Verde are already close to the US and have overtaken European countries like Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Latvia.

Conclusion

Africa is far from being homogeneous in its development. There are huge gaps between the richer and poorer countries. But however we look at it, all indicators show that life is probably better today in places like Botswana, Gabon and maybe even Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal than it was in Western countries in 1950 and often even throughout the 1950s. Life in these countries is undeniably better than in the former Communist bloc until the 1960s or even 70s or 80s. Small African island countries like the Seychelles, Mauritius, Cabo Verde or Sao Tome & Principe all rank fairly well worldwide even compared to Eastern Europe or Latin America.
 
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What is amazing is that a country like Burundi, which is officially the poorest in the world, with a GDP per capita of only $793, still manages to have a life expectancy of 61.6 years (like Spain in 1950) and a child mortality rate of 5.3% (about like Italy and Spain in 1960)! No Western country has ever done so well when they were that poor. The Maddison Project estimated the historical GDP (PPP) per capita (in 2011 International Dollars) of various parts of the world from 1 CE to 1800 and not a single European country has a GDP per capita under $1000 since the 13th century! Going back to the reign of Emperor Augustus, Italy's GDP per capita was about $1400, almost twice more than Burundi today. Other regions of the Roman Empire ranged between $900 and $1100 - all were richer than present-day Burundi. But life expectancy in the Roman Empire was between 22 and 33 years old with a child mortality of over 50%! So wealth does not necessarily correlate with health and longevity.

One explanation is the benefits of modern medicine in even the poorest parts of the world today. But that's not the whole story otherwise there wouldn't be such big differences between poor countries themselves. It also wouldn't explain why Burundi ranks right in the middle of the ranking within Africa for life expectancy and child mortality and not at the bottom.

It could be that people in the region have good genes relating to longevity considering that neighbouring Rwanda also greatly outperforms countries with a similar GDP per capita.
 
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Another essential aspect of modern life is the presence of running water, sanitation and plumbing in our homes. But this was also a relatively recent development. In 1950, one third of homes in the United States lacked plumbing and a similar percentage didn't have a flush toilet. Yet the USA was ahead of almost every other country back then.

Britain was the most developed European country in this regards, and yet still half of British homes didn't have a bathroom in 1950. This site explains that the 1967 House Conditions Survey found that 25 percent of homes in England and Wales still lacked a bath or shower, an indoor WC, a sink and hot and cold water taps. But by 1991, only 1 per cent of households lacked one or more of these.

In France, only 30% of rural municipalities had running water in 1945 and the French had to wait until 1980 until nearly every home in the country was connected to the water distribution network. According to the 1946 census, although 9 out of 10 main residences in France had electricity, only 6% had a shower or bathtub, 37% had running water from an indoor tap (13% in rural communities) and 20% had indoor toilets. In 1968, less than half of French homes had a bathroom (with shower or bathtub).

Nowadays there are still European countries with a substantial percentage of homes lacking basic sanitations (World Bank data for 2022 ; basic sanitations include toilets and safe drinking water). For example, they are still lacking in 9% of homes in Ireland (very surprising for one of the richest countries in the world with a higher GDP per capita than the USA!), 11% in Russia, 13% in Romania, 14% in Bulgaria, and 21% in Moldova.

In contrast, 100% of homes in the Seychelles have basic sanitations (that's more than in France, Belgium, Germany, the UK, Sweden or Canada, which are all at 99%). Mauritius is at 98% (like the Netherlands). On the African continent itself, basic sanitations are found in 81% of homes in Botswana, 78% in South Africa, 74% in Rwanda, 67% in Djibouti, 66% in Equatorial Guinea, 64% in Eswatini (former Swaziland), 60% in Senegal, 52% in Angola, 50% in Lesotho and Gabon, 49% in Malawi, 48% in Sao Tome and Principe and the Gambia, 47% in Nigeria, etc. In most African countries today, a higher percentage of homes have access to basic sanitations than in France (and most European countries) in the 1950s and 60s!
 
Maps of life expectancy in 1800, 1950 and 2015 show that African countries have caught up with the rich world of 1950.

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Abidjan in Ivory Coast is soon going to have one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Tour F, which will be completed next year and will house mostly offices, will reach a height of 400 m. It will be taller than any other building in Africa, Latin America, Oceania, or Europe (except for one tower in Russia). Even in North America they will only be a few buildings in New York and Chicago that exceed its height.

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There are plenty of mega projects underway in Africa at the moment. Here is a video that shows some of them.


Some countries have many impressive projects of their own, notably Ethiopia and Kenya.


 
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