Did you learn that the United States is rich because we have bountiful natural resources? That has to be nonsense. Africa and South America are probably the richest continents in natural resources but are home to the world's most miserably poor people. On the other hand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and England are poor in natural resources, but their people are among the world's richest.
Maybe your college professor taught that the legacy of colonialism explains Third World poverty. That's nonsense as well. Canada was a colony. So were Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In fact, the richest country in the world, the United States, was once a colony. By contrast, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan were never colonies, but they are home to the world's poorest people.
There's no complete explanation for why some countries are affluent while others are poor, but there are some leads. Rank countries along a continuum according to whether they are closer to being free-market economies or whether they're closer to socialist or planned economies. Then, rank countries by per-capita income. We will find a general, not perfect, pattern whereby those countries having a larger free-market sector produce a higher standard of living for their citizens than those at the socialist end of the continuum.
What is more important is that if we ranked countries according to how Freedom House or Amnesty International rates their human-rights guarantees, we'd see that citizens of countries with market economies are not only richer, but they tend to enjoy a greater measure of human-rights protections. While there is no complete explanation for the correlation between free markets, higher wealth and human-rights protections, you can bet the rent money that the correlation is not simply coincidental.
With but few exceptions, African countries are not free, and most are basket cases. My colleague, John Blundell, director of the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, highlights some of this in his article "Africa's Plight Will Not End With Aid" in The Scotsman (6/14/04).