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Waterways & inequality

In a recent article, I discussed the difference between the rich and average Americans. My intent was to make the reader think about their own lives and understand that they are not that different from those they would consider "extremely wealthy." However, this doesn't mean that such differences do not exist. Human beings differ from one corner of the United States to another; no two people are the same. Therefore, achieving equality among humans is impossible. Even people from the same household, in the same environment, with the same parents, and sharing almost identical DNA, will still not be equal. I would like for you to think about this very deeply. The causes of inequality vary due to many factors, which can include cultural, environmental, and even the time in history we live in. There are reasons why Western Europeans and Eastern Europeans have such far-fetched differences in wealth, just as there are differences between Sub-Saharan Africans and Americans. I would like to address one of the reasons why differences in wealth exist among nations: Geography.

When one thinks of wealth inequality, the same arguments always come to mind - theories of economic dependency, ideas of genetic determinism, and arguments of oppressive structures. But very rarely do we ever hear about geography. It is impossible to address every geographical difference in one article but I would like to begin with waterways.

Water is essential for humans; it is required to sustain life. It can feed us by providing fish and other aquatic creatures, serves as irrigation for our crops, and facilitates commerce and transportation of individuals. There are differences in waterways, from rivers and lakes to oceans, but not all rivers or even oceans are the same. Before the invention of motorized vehicles, transportation by land was slow and inefficient, especially for people who did not have beasts of burden. In his book, Wealth, Poverty and Politics, Dr. Thomas Sowell asserted:

“In 1830, it cost more than 30 dollars to move a ton of cargo 300 miles on land but only 10 dollars to ship it 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.”

However, even after the invention of motorized vehicles, this difference between land and water did not disappear.

“In twentieth-century Africa, the estimated cost of shipping an automobile by land from Djibouti to Addis Ababa (342 miles) was the same as the cost of shipping it by water from Detroit to Djibouti (7,386).”

This limitation of navigational waterways is a crucial factor in the interaction between cultures and the development of advanced economies. Another incredible factor is that Africa is more than twice the size of Europe, however, its coastline is significantly smaller than that of Europe. From Wealth, Poverty and Politics, “This is possible because the European coastline twists and turns, creating many harbors where ships can dock, sheltered from the rough waters of the open seas.”

The African coast, on the other hand, is smoother, with few natural harbors. Europe in addition has many islands and peninsulas, which Africa has fewer of, reducing even further its coastline and harbors. Sub-Saharan African coastlines are too shallow for large ships to dock. This, in turn, creates a time-consuming process to offload cargo to smaller ships in order to reach the coastline. This is one of the reasons why, for most of the past centuries, commerce between Asia and Europe bypassed Africa and very rarely stopped on an African dock. If transportation of goods and people is hindered by the cost of commerce, this will slow down the exchange of ideas. Is it any wonder then, why some cultures, nations or even continents fall behind in one or another period of history?


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