How Witchcraft Harms Economies

Belief in witchcraft harms people, relationships and economic progress.

Belief in magic is connected to a lack of economic growth in Africa and elsewhere, new research shows. A 2010 Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft. African witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases but also for placing blessings on businesses and curses on rivals.

For many Africans magic is routinely used for personal and financial gain. Belief in magic may seem quaint or harmless, but it can have serious consequences ranging from witch hunts to murder. It harms economies as well.

A new large-scale economics study, the first of its kind, explores witchcraft -- defined as the use of the supernatural to harm others or acquire wealth -- and its role in the erosion of social capital such as trust. American University Economics Professor Boris Gershman examined survey data from 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and found "a robust negative association between the prevalence of witchcraft beliefs and multiple measures of trust."

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Trust is an essential ingredient in interpersonal relationships and in economic development; for example a business owner is unlikely to enter into contracts with others if he or she doesn't trust those partners to fulfill their obligations. Gershman found the same lack of trust in other metrics of social capital including charitable giving and religious participation.

Gerrie ter Haar, a professor of religion, human rights and social change, writing in "Imagining Evil: Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusations in Contemporary Africa," notes:

"Witchcraft, as an ideology and as a practice, is a development issue in the sense that it hampers economic progress as people, afraid of being accused of practicing witchcraft, refrain from any activity that may make them appear more successful in life than others... Fear of witchcraft often inhibits people from undertaking any productive activity in areas where this is often most needed. As a result, ambitious young people will move away and start businesses elsewhere. In South Africa witchcraft accusations are often made against those who initiate development projects or otherwise try to improve their conditions of life."

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Throughout much of Africa being called a "witch" is not merely an insult. In some cases the mere accusation can lead to ostracism, persecution, or even death at the hands of an angry mob. Women and the elderly are especially vulnerable because they are believed to be more closely associated with black, or malicious, magic than male witches.

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And it's not just Africa. As an article on notes, "The relationship between witchcraft beliefs, trust and erosion of social capital extends to many places beyond sub-Saharan Africa. Using additional survey data from 23 nations (including those in Asia, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East), Gershman compiled a broader country-level dataset on witchcraft beliefs."

Gershman writes that "Evidence from societies beyond Africa shows that in preindustrial communities where witchcraft is believed to be an important cause of illness, mistrust and other antisocial traits are inculcated since childhood. Furthermore, second-generation immigrants in Europe originating from countries with widespread witchcraft beliefs are generally less trusting." Gershman suggests that increased education may help solve the problem as a scientific worldview replaces a superstitious one.

The research, "Witchcraft beliefs and the erosion of social capital: Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond," appears in the May 2016 "Journal of Development Economics."