Despite the persistence of Africa’s natural and man-made horrors, the latest trend is cheeringly positive
UNTIL the past few weeks of global turmoil, Africa’s doughty band of boosters were feeling they at last had something to smile about. After four decades of political and economic stagnation that kept most of their 800m-odd people in poverty and gloom, the continent’s 48 sub-Saharan countries have been growing for the past five years at a perky overall rate of 5% or so. If they maintain this pace or even bump it up a bit, Africa still has a chance of taking off. Now, with commodity prices likely to fall, world markets sure to shrivel and Western aid set to plateau or even dip, Africa, though more isolated from the global economy than other parts of the world, is bound to suffer from its ill breeze. But maybe not as badly. Once described by this newspaper, perhaps with undue harshness, as “the hopeless continent”, it could yet confound its legion of gloomsters and show that its oft-heralded renaissance is not just another false dawn prompted by the passing windfall of booming commodity prices, but the start of something solid and sustainable. Despite its manifold and persistent problems of lousy governments and erratic climates (see article), Africa has a chance of rising.
Pessimists have plenty of evidence to call on. There have been spurts of growth before, especially when commodity prices have risen sharply. But when those prices have fallen, growth has fizzled. Africa’s few recent successes tend to be set against a previous history of disaster. Ghana, for instance, is often cited as one of the most hopeful cases, but at independence in 1957 it was nearly as well off as South Korea; now, despite its recent bounce, it is still some 30 times poorer in wealth per person. The lively growth in several other hopeful spots—for instance, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda—must likewise be set against the horrors of their quite recent past. In fact, the sole country in Africa with a record of consistently strong political and economic progress is Botswana.
Many basic indices remain grim. Africans’ lifespan is still declining, owing largely to the scourge of AIDS, 60% of whose worldwide victims are African. A recent World Bank paper was guarded as to whether the African surge would last. Most of the quicker growth, it notes, is due to soaring revenues enjoyed by just eight sub-Saharan African countries blessed with oil. A third of Africa’s countries—by far the highest proportion in any continent—are trapped in civil wars or cycles of violent unrest. The two biggest in area, Sudan and Congo, are ravaged by strife and misgovernment. Zimbabwe, once a jewel of southern Africa, is still a nightmare, despite a recent agreement to forge a government of national unity. The World Bank paper bemoans Africa’s standards of governance.
Perhaps even more worrying, in the past year or so, three of Africa’s leading countries have had heavy setbacks. Nigeria’s election was the shoddiest since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999; Kenya, east Africa’s hub, succumbed to ethnic mayhem after a disputed poll; and South Africa, easily the sub-Saharan continent’s leading power in every way, producing one-third of its entire GDP, has entered an ugly phase of politics, authoritarian if not yet undemocratic, just when it should be setting an example of tolerant pluralism to the rest of Africa. The recent violence against black foreigners is a reminder that the bottom third of South Africans still face gnawing poverty.
All the same, the boosters’ case is stronger than before. Political freedom, however patchy, is commoner than it was a generation ago. Two-thirds of African countries now limit presidential terms; at least 14 leaders (with a few bad exceptions) have felt obliged to step down as a result. Multi-party systems, however fraught, are more usual; the notion of political accountability and choice is more widely accepted. The media, partly because of the internet, are livelier. The latest index of African governance funded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born telecoms mogul, suggests a general improvement.
The presumption of state control under the rubric of “African socialism” (an illusory third way) has been junked. Most local leaders accept that Africa must join the global economy to prosper, however shaky it looks right now. The mobile-phone revolution has hugely helped Africans, especially poor peasants and traders. Banking systems are modernising and mortgages more readily offered to an emerging middle class. Businessmen around the world have been investing more, especially in Africa’s better-governed countries. Even those that lack natural wealth have grown a bit faster. The spectacular advent of China into Africa’s market is, on balance, a bonus.
Another report, co-sponsored by the World Bank, gently dissents from the certitudes of the “Washington consensus” that pure free marketry could cure all, and that Africa must just open up to trade, tighten its fiscal strings and sell off the state. One size in varied Africa does not fit all. The rich world could, for instance, offer time-limited trade preferences.
Other devices could help too. America’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 has spurred African exports by dropping American tariffs. Another promising new mechanism is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary code that a score of African countries have adopted, with governments and foreign firms accounting openly for their dealings—in contrast to mineral-rich Congo, whose government ludicrously claimed in 2006 to have received only $86,000 in mineral earnings. The creation of national savings funds in commodity-flush countries is another good idea. On the farming front, issuing individual land titles, no easy task in a continent where much land is still communally held, is another. Pragmatism often beats dogma.
So Africa has a rare chance to break out of its poverty trap. It would be hard even if governments were honest and efficient. Sadly, most are still not. Amid all the grim drawbacks of climate, disease, illiteracy and ethnic division, bad and corrupt government is still by far the biggest. But the news overall is cheerier. And the rich world, troubled as it is, must never give up in its effort to help the poor one to stand on its own feet.
(from The Economist)