The thing we tend to overlook with the fandom Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther inspires is that it’s quite staid. Michael B. Jordan butt appreciation tweets share feeds with economist J. Robert Subrick’s 26-page study on the Wakandan political economy. The more you dive into the details of this contrast, the more you see how improbable Wakanda’s fictional existence is.
Subrick’s study briefly touches upon some of the uglier socioeconomic realities of Wakanda’s real-life neighbors. Bordering nations such as Sudan and Uganda rank among the world’s most corrupt and trade-averse. Wakanda’s lack of waterway access drastically decreases trade opportunities with non-neighbors. Then there’s Africa’s violent colonial history.
How is it so prosperous? Why does it choose to stay invisible?
The answers all start with its super-mineral: vibranium. To Wakandans, it’s everything. It powers their tech, keeps them self-sustaining, serves as plot-filler. It’s what spurs Michael B. Jordan and his beautiful derriere to return, seeking liberation for the African diaspora at large. With their resources, what’s to lose?
Possibly everything, the answer turns out. Notable within Subrick’s study is an economic theory called the “natural resource curse.” As my economics professor, JC Punongbayan explains to me, the natural resource curse states that countries with an abundance of natural resources (oil, non-renewables, etc.) tend to have worse socioeconomic development outcomes (read: inclusive wealth and opportunity growth) versus relatively resource-poor countries.
The natural resource curse states that countries with an abundance of natural resources (oil, non-renewables, etc.) tend to have worse socioeconomic development outcomes (read: inclusive wealth and opportunity growth) versus relatively resource-poor countries.
Studies back this up. The Subrick study I mentioned a while ago cites findings provided by Harvard economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner. It found that countries with an abundance of natural resources, such as Iran (oil), Liberia (minerals), and Saudi Arabia (oil), generally demonstrate slower economic growth (read: the extent to which a country is able to produce goods for both its citizens and for the rest of the world) versus other relatively less resource-abundant ones, like Japan and Singapore. Further deep dives into the Subrick paper produce additional studies that show how resource-abundant countries also tend to be more institutionally unstable and susceptible to rapidly fluctuating commodity prices.
This aligns further with what current events and history says. Analysts generally pin Venezuela’s current food and power shortages on government mismanagement of oil assets. Liberia found itself embroiled in a 14-year civil war partly because of its lucrative diamond mining industry. China’s got us tangled up in the South China Sea militarization issue partly because of potential oil and natural gas deposits in the area. And that’s on top of domestic concerns, like tribalism. Given how landlocked Wakanda generally fits the country-with-poor-geographic-location-and-abundant-natural-resource profile, it’s no wonder they chose to keep to themselves.
Given how landlocked Wakanda generally fits the country-with-poor-geographic-location-and-abundant-natural-resource profile, it’s no wonder they chose to keep to themselves.
This is not to say, however, that isolationism is right or that the studies are foolproof. If anything, the events after Killmonger’s death and T’Challa’s UN speech make it very clear where Coogler and the movie stand on Wakanda’s rightful place in the world. It’s just that the real world works very different from the comic book world, as I’m sure you guys know.
The spotty developmental track record of countries with similar resource profiles doesn’t bode well for our dear Wakandan friends. Isolation, much as it can be interpreted to be cowardly, can also be construed as safe. Filmmakers and comic book makers aren’t called economists for a reason. There’s a reason the film ended without going deeper into Wakanda’s more technical inner workings. All ideals have their flaws. That’s life.
And yet life aside, flaws are precisely also why Wakanda is so strong. The beauty of the discourse inspired by Black Panther is that it’s forced people such as me to revisit what little I know on economic theory, and colonialism, and present it, and contradict it. Hell, the fact that Wakanda and all its principles found itself in any academic conversation at all, proves our desire to speak truth to Black Panther’s imagined reality. Its true power is the curiosity and hope it elicits from people.
I mean, that’s how the movie ends, right? A young kid staring up at T’Challa, awed by his vibranium-powered hovercraft, a whole new world opening up in front of him.