The president of the world’s poorest country lives behind a huge black gate guarded by a couple of men with machine guns. Those who get past it face an office container with a rooftop dish. A back entrance leads to a wood-panelled office with heavy curtains to keep the afternoon heat out. This is where Faustin Archange Touadéra, the president, sits in a supersized leather armchair; and somehow, he looks a bit lost in it.
Actually, Touadéra is a professor of mathematics. Several years ago, he joined politics "to serve" his country, as he says. It did not take him long to realize that this is more complicated than the most sophisticated mathematic equation: Touadéra is the president of the Central African Republic.
If you draw a line from the north of the African continent to its south, and another one from its east to its west, the country lies where the two lines intersect. Once a year, the United Nations publishes a ranking of global wealth by country. The Central African Republic ranks last: The annual income per capita is as little as 581 dollars – in Germany it is 43,919 dollars.
Why does the mayor of any medium-sized town in Europe have access to a higher budget than the president of a country twice as large as the Federal Republic of Germany?
Why are almost six million cars manufactured in Germany every year, but not even one in Faustin Archange Touadéra’s country?
Why is the average life expectancy of Germans 81 years while that of people in the heart of Africa is only 51?
Why, in essence, are poor countries poor – and rich countries rich?
Countless economists have tried to answer that question. They explored the causes for poverty and thought about what might help the poor. However, their ideas have hardly penetrated international politics or influenced its decision-making process. This will change next weekend. Then, the world’s major economies (G20) will send their financial ministers and heads of the central banks to the German town of Baden-Baden to discuss how to fight poverty in Africa.
This is quite extraordinary as what is true for people is sometimes also true for countries: There are clubs for the rich and clubs for the poor. The G20 is a club for the rich and has so far mainly dealt with the question of how to become even richer. But as hundreds of thousands of Africans have set off to Europe, hoping to live better lives here, the problems President Touadéra is facing have suddenly turned into problems of the West. At least this is what Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, thinks. So, he put the item on the agenda.
However, as is often the case in economics, there is not only one theory but many. They all try to explain why poor countries are poor. Some experts attribute poverty to the geographic location of countries: According to them, access to open sea is a key component of economic development as it facilitates trade. On the one hand, this sounds logical, on the other hand, Switzerland is pretty far away from any Ocean and still one of the richest countries in the world.