John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Optimists

by John Campbell
November 21, 2013

A Somali boy jumps between old fishing boats above Mogadishu's fishing harbour near the fish market in the Xamar Weyne district of the Somali capital, in this handout photo taken March 16, 2013 by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team (AU-UN IST) and released March 18, 2013. (Handout/Courtesy Reuters) A Somali boy jumps between old fishing boats above Mogadishu's fishing harbour near the fish market in the Xamar Weyne district of the Somali capital, in this handout photo taken March 16, 2013 by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team (AU-UN IST) and released March 18, 2013. (Handout/Courtesy Reuters)

Joshua Keating has written a brief, thought-provoking article in Slate titled “The Optimistic Continent.” He notes that the World Economic Forum’s Survey on the Global Agenda identifies Africa as the world’s most optimistic region about the ability of institutions (public and private) to respond to “global challenges.”

He also cites a Gallup survey that shows that fourteen of the fifteen most optimistic countries in the world were in Africa with respect to respondents’ future lives in comparison with the current ones. The same survey also shows that Africans are more optimistic than Europeans or Americans that their children will be better off than themselves.

For Keating, African optimism is credible because of the improved living standards – in some countries. But, he also observes that not only is inequality growing within countries, it is increasing between countries.

Keating’s short article raises two big questions. Why are Europeans and Americans increasingly pessimistic about the future? And why are the peoples of the world’s poorest and most challenged continent so optimistic?

The first question may be easier to answer. Europe and North American are still recovering from the “Great Recession” of 2008. In those countries, unemployment is high, job opportunities seem to be shrinking, and middle and working-class incomes are stagnating or declining. Add to those realities the political paralysis in Washington and the seemingly lackluster political leadership elsewhere in the developed world. And then there is the challenge of China, sometimes seen in the West as an evolving rival, a challenge I think that is over-stated.

African optimism is harder to explain. Optimists downplay internal conflicts, but they have not gone away: northern Nigeria, Mali, eastern Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia are current examples. The statistical underpinnings of an alleged African economic boom have been seriously called into question by Morten Jerven in his book Poor Numbers. Most big African cities show almost grotesque inequalities of wealth, and not only are some countries much more successful than others (e.g., Ghana, Botswana, South Africa), but even within countries certain regions are more successful than others (e.g., the Lagos-Ibadan corridor in Nigeria or Katanga in the Congo).

But the “Africa Rising” narrative has been embraced by African opinion leaders, African governments, and many investment houses based in the developed world. For much of the media, that narrative is not to be questioned. That surely has some impact on popular perceptions, which is what the World Economic Forum and Gallup are measuring.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Thomas Timberg

    just because pace Jerven the African figures are flawed doesn’t mean there is no growth –it means we don’t know from the numbers — but we can observe social reality.

  • Posted by Chike

    Africans are naturally optimistic – this has nothing to do with economic reality or even commonsense – it is just the way we are.

  • Posted by Ayo Adene

    In response to Keating’s article, Africans are not more optimistic than Europeans because of facts. Jerven has pointed out the loopholes in prevailing statistics albeit popular, and Dambisa Moyo has long ago put to rest the myth of foreign aid as a driver for African development, against the cacophony of the Bretton Woods PR machine. More so than in Europe, high unemployment and moribund economies are an unmistakeable feature of life on the ground in Africa, away from the rarified clouds of propagandist statistics. African optimism itself is a further indication that Africa is not rising anytime soon, as long as opinions are formed based on subjective states of wishfulness fueled by religion and a failure to ask real questions, much like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

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