The Riddle of the Sphinx: On the Problems, Possibilities, and Opportunities for Development Along the Banks of the World’s Longest River

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Chad Oliver
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The conviction that geography plays a significant role in directing the development of nations, a theory known as environmental determinism, has been a staple of ethnographic research since antiquity when scholars like Hippocrates and Strabo mused about how humans were shaped by their surroundings. More recently determinism has returned to the public forum in popular books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse by Jared Diamond and in academic articles by writers like David Livingstone and Clint Ballinger. While it is true that geography cannot be ignored – it’s remarkably difficult to domesticate draft animals or develop sophisticated metallurgy when neither animals nor ore are present – its role as a determining factor is open to question. This paper observes some modern correlates for developmental success across several different regions and populations as sorted by major river basins. The central focus is on the Nile because of its position as one of the oldest permanently settled major basins in World history. The findings of this study are that geography and climate appear to have relatively little correlation with improved performance by the commonly accepted development indicators of GDP per capita, infant mortality rate, and life expectancy. Rather, factors surrounding good governance and administration, such as low corruption, secure political and property rights, reliable contract enforcement, and firmly entrenched civil liberties are closer correlates with robust development indicators. The existence of these correlations suggests that there might be cause for further research into the usefulness of developing robust institutional competencies to encourage responsible development rather continuing to support the current dominant paradigm of development which focuses on raising living standards in the short term and hoping that governance and institutions follow.