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Africa’s Arrested Development

by Isobel Coleman
October 4, 2013

A student writes on a blackboard in a classroom outside of Lome, Togo, April 2013. (Courtesy Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi). A student writes on a blackboard in a classroom outside of Lome, Togo, April 2013. (Courtesy Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi).


Last month, I wrote about the economic and social reforms that have boosted Africa’s growth, and the challenges the region still faces going forward. This week, David Smith of The Guardian wrote on a similar theme, questioning the popular narrative of “Africa rising.” Based on survey data, Smith argues that recent optimism about the continent is misguided: although there has been economic growth, it has not helped average Africans. Indeed, in some countries – including in South Africa, the continent’s largest economy – poverty rates are increasing.

Smith cites a recent report by the Afrobarometer research project, which found that recent economic growth in the region is “failing to trickle down.” More than two in five Africans surveyed reported that they regularly cannot fulfill basic needs. Overall, the gains of Africa’s recent economic growth remain too skewed toward small groups of elites. This is not good news for democracy on the continent either, since research shows that the success of emerging democracies very much depends on whether democracy materially improves people’s lives.

As I noted in my earlier post, economic and social reforms have occurred unevenly across the continent. To move forward and address rampant poverty, the region will have to overcome major challenges, particularly related to education and the growing youth bulge. The Afrobarometer report supports these claims: it finds that higher levels of education can help reduce poverty, as can access to resources such as piped water and electrical grids. The Obama administration’s commitment to “Power Africa” by doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, where two thirds of the population lacks access to power, is good news on this front.

The Afrobarometer report also points to deep frustration about lack of employment. Seventy-one percent of Africans surveyed were disappointed with their government’s ability to create jobs and reduce income inequality. Africa’s current mix of economic activity remains overly reliant on natural resources, so to boost employment, economies must diversify; and governments must better educate youth so that they can participate in an expanded economy. Otherwise, Africa’s wealth will continue to overly benefit elites.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Joe

    I’m wondering what alternative the author suggests or is he just angry about the optimism? I mean, wealth around the world goes predominantly to the elite. That doesn’t just happen in Africa. So, should Africa forego economic growth because it’s not equitable? Of course, I realize that’s rhetorical and the point is taken that efforts should be made to ensure wealth is shared. But it seems as though Africa can never seem to get anything right and the drumbeat of criticism is defeatist and plays into the idea that Africa and Africans are inferior and should just stop trying.

  • Posted by Venatus

    @Joe, it is not just about being angry with the level of optimism we are witnessing about Africa’s prospects, it is about being pragmatic. The issue here is that we are witnessing economic growth and not economic development. Growth and development are entirely two different things. Growth is about the statistics- the numbers, which of course is predominantly driven by the sale of primary commodities and the boom in the prices of these commodities in the global market, coupled with the fact that more and more countries are discovering natural resources like oil and gas from East Africa to West to Southern Africa. However, development is about improving the well being and living conditions of the people and this can happen when the so called economic growth is translating to economic development by investing (the revenue made from the sale of those commodities) in basic things like infrastructures, health, education, agriculture, water and sanitation. These are the things that can create jobs and wealth for the ordinary citizens, and in turn generate more revenue for the government via taxation. And it does not make sense selling primary commodities only to import (secondary) finished products made from the same commodities at a much higher price with value addition to that other country’s economy. Another thing that is militating against this narrative is corruption; revenues that are supposed to be used for development are embezzled by government officials. Also governments across the region lose revenues due to mispricing and tax evasion by multinationals corporations operating here. When corruption, mispricing and tax evasion are factored into the so-called growth statistics, i bet you, the numbers will drop. So in the real sense we should be emphasizing development and not growth, since we are still developing, developed countries can talk about growth but not us.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Dear Joe,

    Thank you very much for reading the blog and sharing your comment. You are absolutely right that inequality is an issue around the world, not just in Africa. In order to combat it, African economies must diversify and governments must reform their education systems. Economic growth is an important ingredient for Africa’s success, but job creation and skills training for the continent’s growing youth population will also be key to future prosperity. You can read more of my thoughts on this topic in my previous blog post, “What Africa Needs to Succeed,”

    Thank you,
    Isobel Coleman

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