Africa Rising: Fact or Fiction?

 

African Woman

From Time and the Economist to McKinsey and Forbes, most credible observers agree that a New Africa is emerging. Over the last two decades, Africa has gradually experienced a turnaround that now has several of its countries leading the world in growth and urbanization rates. Disposable incomes are growing and in many countries, key social and governance indicators are improving. Africa is already home to 22 Middle Income Countries (so called MICS). If current trends hold, by 2025, almost all African countries will be middle income. Only about 13 countries will remain low-income, most of them fragile states. And while the governance landscape today looks patchy, it’s expected that the vast majority of African countries will have crossed the threshold to become true democracies by 2050.

Of the Afro-optimists, Renaissance Capital (‘RenCap”), a leading global investment firm, is perhaps the most bullish. Anointing Africans the “Fastest Billion”, a book sponsored by the firm alludes to Africa’s unique potential to catch up. And fast. Emerging markets, they argue, typically reach a threshold at which growth suddenly accelerates dramatically. Japan gained quickly on Europe, and the Newly Industrialized Countries reached levels of affluence much more quickly than either Europe or Japan. India and China have grown faster still, mostly because they exploit the inventions and innovation of those who have gone before.

Lately, though, the Africa Rising debate has picked up pace with the entry of skeptics, some braver than others. Critics appear to have three main objections. First is the argument, advanced here by Rick Rowden, that structurally, most African economies have fatal flaws that will prevent them from converting the current spurt into sustained broad-based growth. Most rich countries had to develop a large, labour-intensive manufacturing base and strong exports to deliver higher per capita incomes for most citizens. Africa, by contrast, has been unable to build a strong industrial base with many countries actually losing ground. It is unlikely that the continent can leapfrog past this stage to a service or knowledge economy. RenCap responds here that there are models, notably India, of nations that have moved into services and knowledge before industry, although the evidence here remains debated.

A second group of objections comes from those concerned with measurement. Morten Jerven, for instance, notes that the data coming out of Africa is still so poor that it will be hard to measure gains, let alone establish a baseline. Others, like Duncan Clarke, author of Africa’s Future, object to futuristic data across the board. Futurology, the growing art of presenting long-term projections as if scientific, is seductive but suspect. Most projections assume that all economic, political and social trends will remain as they are, and of course, nobody knows.

Pineapple FarmerTo be sure, these concerns are shared by many optimists as well. Many African governments are already grappling with the data question and although progress is being made, the problem will probably persist for another decade as economies are formalized and public services streamlined. The same goes for industrialization. Most public and private sector leaders, especially in the commodity-dependent counties, are fully aware that Africa will need to shift once and for all from purely extractive models into value-adding models to become competitive in the global economy. In these two areas at least, Africa Rising will be mostly a matter of how and when, rather than if.

Perhaps the largest group of sceptics straddles the aid industry, academia, government and the general public. For most of modern history, Africa has symbolized war, famine, pestilence and despair, with many, including famously, Jeffrey Sachs, arguing its history, geography or people pose special challenges. This group believes that Africa’s problems are intractable and set it apart from all the other regions of the world so that its trajectory is necessarily separate.

For others, like speaking of Africa rising seems rather self-indulgent. Is it a denial of all those still desperately in need? Does it gloss over the reality of poor governance, inadequate social services, crumbling and non-existence infrastructure? What about the growing fury at inequality as some prosper and others scramble to keep up? Should Africa even want to be like New Asia with its authoritarian capitalism? At the end of the day, others grumble, this fancy academic discourse, no matter how heated, means nothing to ordinary people. After all, Africa Rising or not, all Farmer Joe needs is a road.

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But noting that Africa is rising does not suppose that all the work is done. Certainly, the ship is only just beginning to turn, a process that will take the better part of the century. Every day will probably be slightly better than the last, with dramatic reversals from time to time.

It is likely that only future generations will enjoy a truly just and prosperous Africa, if that aspiration has been every met by any society. Even if we only relish this reality on a short respite before getting back to work, that alone is cause for celebration.

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