The Accumulative Disadvantage of Congo

A friend gave me a cool collection of books yesterday. The first one I picked up to read is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Similar to another favorite, Freakonomics, it challenges long-held beliefs about how certain things have come to be, and provides surprising correlations among data. Economics made fun. In this case, the notion of “success” is challenged. Economists have uncovered certain phenomena that show a person’s potential for success has more to do with their family, birthplace and even birth date than “traditional” success factors such as natural intelligence and ambition.

The first chapter describes how professional athletic teams around the world are skewed by birth date. For example, more professional hockey players are born in January than any other month, followed by February, and then March. Why would this be true? A predisposition for winter sports? 🙂  Not quite. It turns out the cutoff for Canadian junior hockey leagues is January 1. So a boy who turns 10 on January 2 could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 for 12 more months… which means there’s a huge difference between their physical abilities and maturity. As a result, more boys who are born in the early months of the year enter the program. Once in the program, of course, they receive better coaching and more practice than those not in the program. As a result the professional hockey leagues are disproportionately full of early-birth-month players. The same pattern is repeated around the world – players’ birthdates are skewed around whichever cut-off date is in place. (American football and basketball are exceptions, given the relative accessibility of those sports… but baseball is not.)

This is maybe not so fair to a budding athlete with all the talent of Wayne Gretsky, who just happens to be born later in the year. But more troubling is that this same problematic pattern is repeated in schools around the world. Kids who enter kindergarten in the same year will have ages varying by almost 12 months. The older ones, who are a little more mature, may show greater “promise” than the younger ones. They are rewarded, given more attention and positive reinforcement… so they do even better the next year, and the gap between the two groups of kids grows. Economists found that among 4th graders, the oldest children scored 4-12% higher than the youngest ones.  80th vs. 68th percentile can make the difference between success and failure. Who do you think are the kids most likely to do well in high school, to go on to college, and to have a real shot at the middle class? In 4-year colleges in the United States, the youngest kids in each class are underrepresented by 11.6%. Early success begets later success. (The author’s tip to parents: if your kids are among the youngest in the class, hold them back a year.)

So what does this have to do with Africa?

To me, countries like Congo are like the youngest kids in class. They’re behind from the get-go, cannot keep up with the older kids, and keep falling more and more behind. They’ve been handed a raw deal, and for generations their failure has begotten (if that’s a word) more failure. I haven’t posted as much as I would like to about the facts of Congo’s history, but if you’ve read King Leopold’s Ghost or In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz or heck, even the Wikipedia page, then you have some idea what I’m talking about.

Let me give you just one example. When Congo gained its independence in 1960, there were less than 20 university-educated Congolese in the entire country. Less than 20. This is a small pool from which to pick the young country’s next leaders. The Belgians had not put many Congolese in positions of authority alongside them. There was no knowledge transfer, no transition plan. (Granted, independence came earlier than the Belgians expected, but still.)

Thus the country began its existence as the youngest kids in the class. And they received every disadvantage that comes along with that. But they weren’t just younger and less mature, problems which can be overcome… they also came from abusive, dysfunctional homes. And now they had suddenly been handed the keys to the kingdom. Keys which other world powers – the older kids, if you will – still desired and jockeyed for. Thus these young kids embarked upon many early failures, which no one should be surprised have been compounded up to present-day.

One comment

  1. Fascinating story about some of the “key” determinates of success in African culture. Thanks to this latest blog, I had fun searching the Wikipedia page to learn about regions as well as cultural aspects of Africa, including the Congo! Very, very interesting!


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