In planning and urban studies, the term “sub-Saharan Africa” is of widespread use. But what does it mean? Sub-Saharan Africa may seem straight forward a term to be of any debate—any country south of the Sahara Desert is in sub-Saharan Africa, right? Not really! Taking a closer look at the term, it means not necessarily geography; it encompasses race, language, cultural differences and economic development. Its lose application to a vast region that comprise of five sub regions of Arica raise issues of relevance of its use given the wide diversity among the states under the classification.

The use of the term sub-Saharan Africa has been popularised by international organisations, media, governments and academics across world. Given the widespread use of such term by influential institutions, it is always easier to agree with powers that be. It is crucial nonetheless to interrogate the meaning and implications of such classification in planning and urban studies.

A Colourful History

The countries that are now regarded as sub-Saharan Arica have a history characterised by mostly racial classification. Arab writers in the 16th and 17th century regarded the region that is south of Sahara, “bilad-al-sudan”, which translate to “land of the blacks.” The region under this classification stretched from modern-day Sudan to Ethiopia and Senegal. The early European mapmarkers who later covers regions such as the modern-day West Africa, translated it to “Negroland” or Nigritia.” As colonial evolved across the continent, the colonial administrators regarded the region “Tropical Africa” to refer to the region between the Sahara Desert and the Limpopo river. Towards the end of colonialism in the 1970s, the region became popularised as “black Africa” particularly by academics writing on Africa. As this did not sit well given the racial connotations of such explicitness it changed. Sub-Saharan Africa became the replacement phrase. The popularisation o the term in the 1980s was also a time of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which was most prevalent in the countries classified under sub-Saharan Africa. It became the primary catchphrase for the region.

Geographic Inaccuracy and Inconsistency

Referencing geography as the basis of the classification of sub-Saharan Africa has serious shortcomings—inaccuracy and inconsistence. Many countries such as Mauritania are mostly in the Sahara Desert itself. There are inconsistency in how the countries are classified among international institutions.[i] The UNDP and the UN Statistical Division classify 46 of the 54 countries in Africa as in sub-Saharan. In this classification, Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia are not part of sub-Saharan Africa.[ii]

In some classifications, such as that of IMF and UNDP, countries such as Somalia and Djibouti are excluded from the sub-Saharan Africa classification. This is regardless of the fact that they are south of the Sahara desert, further south than Eritrea which is classified sub-Saharan Africa. IMF classifies Somalia and Djibouti under Middle East and Central Africa. The World Bank used to classify Somalia and Djibouti under sub-Saharan Arica, in 2000 however, it moved Djibouti to the Middle East and North Africa classification.[iii] Countries such as Mauritania and Sudan are classified under sub-Saharan Africa by the World Bank and UNDP while IMF classifies them under North Africa.

Map of Africa showing Sahara Desert, sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa

There are no definite criteria of determining which country is south of the Sahara Desert. Countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have partial territories (25-75 percent) that is covered by the Sahara Desert to the south. Other countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chand and the Sudan have part of their territories (25-75 percent) covered by the Sahara Desert on the north. If geography was applied accurately in the classification; all these 10 countries will fall under sub-Saharan Africa. In such a case the term will be a redundant way to say Africa. But sub-Sahara is not just a mere geographic classification, far from it.

Beyond Geography

If the case of sub-Saharan Africa is explicitly geographical, we would expect to have more terms like it across the world where major features such as the Sahara Desert divide regions. In Asia where Gobi Desert is geographically distinct, terms such as sub-Gobi Asia would have been used to describe countries such as China, Indonesia and Japan. The existence of the Arctic would have made Europe to be sub-Arctic Europe. Countries such as Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and France would be sub-Alps Europe as they are located south of the extensive mountain range, The Alps. In South America, where Amazon is an extensive geographic region, terms such as sub-Amazon South America would have been applied to refer to South America. Such classifications are not applied however. This is because the case of sub-Saharan Africa is not only geographic; it encompasses racial and cultural distinction, as well as level of economic development.

The prior exclusion of South Africa from sub-Saharan Africa is a good example. In the 1960s and 1970s when South Africa was still under apartheid, the World Bank classified it together with Middle East and North Africa. It was mostly regarded as ‘South Africa sub-continent.’ In the 1990s when the leadership in South Africa changed to a black majority government the classification changed. The World Bank classified South Africa as part of sub-Saharan Africa.

Implications for Planning

The separation of North Africa from the rest of Africa proves to be less driven by geographic distinction. Instead it has roots in racial differentiation of Africa dominated by blacks from North Africa dominated by Arab population. This differentiation has also played into cultural differences regarded to exist between North Africa and the rest of the continent. In planning of human settlements and urban studies however, such separation affects policy learning and intra-continental policy transfer. As cities across Arica urbanise, the separation of North Africa from the rest of Africa robs the continent of possibilities of successful policy learning and transfer among countries that are on the same continent. The frequent use of sub-Saharan Arica as a blanket term also distorts the differences that exist among countries that are bundled together particularly given the variations in the policies across the sub regions that are similar to North Africa by distinction (West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa).

No Way Forward

It is very unlikely that the use of the term sub-Saharan Africa will ever change in its use because of many reasons. The world has always viewed Africa as one country. There is increasing criticism of the blanket use of Africa even when referring to one country, under the “Africa is not a country.” The world has resorted to sub-Saharan Africa as the term they can use blanketly to refer to Africa and get away with it. Intellectuals in urban studies could have been leaders in the change of language including terms such as sub-Saharan Africa. However, they are also in a tight position to advance that cause. International institutions such as UN, World Bank use the term to sort the data that most intellectuals and planners rely on which compels them to use the term in their work. Even African governments as they seek aid from such organisations, they have to fall in line as funding is assigned according to such classification.

Africa will forever be unique in the way it is characterised. Whether such characterisation is geographically accurate or consistent with global practice will not be a matter of any discussion that yields positive outcomes.


[i] https://www.loc.gov/rr/amed/guide/afr-countrylist.html

[ii] https://www.africa.undp.org/content/rba/en/home/regioninfo.html

[iii] https://data.worldbank.org/region/sub-saharan-africa

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