Analyzing Africa: The Audacity of Despair

A new, defiant image

Published online at The Independent, Rwanda Edition, December 17, 2011

In 2000, the cover of The Economist pictured a boy wielding an AK47 inside the outline of the African continent, surrounded by black. “The hopeless continent,” the cover ominously read. At the time a combination of factors led the magazine and a whole host of bystanders to throw up their hands in despair, and mentally close the door to hope for the future of “Africa.” A decade later, The Economist, whose cover this week reads, “Africa rising” and many others, are waking up, wide-eyed, to realize the tremendous growth and progress that has been taking place on the continent all along. Progress has not been even, or without crushing reversals along the way. But given the history of development across the globe, it is entirely unclear why we should have anticipated linear progress, or lament its absence. Political, social, and economic development will carry on with or without handwringing at one extreme, or ululations at the other.

There have been at least two common mistakes in assessing progress (or the lack thereof) in “Africa,” which together have made for some rather wrongheaded analyses. First, there is a danger in conflating levels of development with development itself. It is obvious to all that levels of per capita income, education, and mortality, for example are lower on average in Africa than anywhere else. The issue of levels, however, is entirely different from change over time. Contrary to popular belief, improvement in both human and economic development was occurring in Africa before the dawn of the new millennium, just not everywhere. This leads me to the second analytic pitfall – the “Africa is a country” problem.

It is obvious to all that Africa is not a country but a continent, but analysis nonetheless often treats Africa as if it were one political, economic, or social unit. It is not. There is tremendous variation across the continent in both levels of development and rates of improvement over time. A failure to acknowledge the divergent paths countries have taken leads to the kind of essentialisation one tends to regret.

It is all too easy to essentialize. The mind recalls the most extreme cases, and remembers those that support prior beliefs. So in 2000, near the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with flooding, drought, the Second Congo War, political crisis in Sierra Leone and a waffling UN Security Council, it was easy to create an image of Africa that was tearing itself to pieces. “Africa was weak before the Europeans touched its coasts. Nature is not kind to it,” wrote The Economist. “This may be the birthplace of mankind, but it is hardly surprising that humans sought other continents to live in.” Ouch.

As noted, it is true that levels of development, that is, income per capita, literacy, infant mortality, and many other measures of development, are comparatively far lower in sub-Saharan Africa, but all of this ignores the changes that have been taking place. In the 1990s, for instance, despite much pessimism, a number of countries held multi-party elections, a wave that started with Benin in 1991. While these countries would not become flourishing liberal democracies overnight, the 1990s would mark the beginning of the end of dictatorship as we know it.

There was also an effort to improve access to education, and the percentage of children completing primary school grew in a number of countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Togo, and Uganda, albeit occasionally starting at very low levels. Gains in education were not achieved everywhere, and schooling declined in some countries, but this fact only further demonstrates the variation in performance across African countries.

The best news is that although improvement in education varied, improvements in health over the past several decades have been nearly universal. Since 1960, child mortality has fallen in every single African country for which there is data, with the possible exception of Somalia. Even in a country like the Central African Republic (CAR), notorious for its poor governance, under-5 mortality fell by half over the past fifty years, from 300 to just over 150 deaths per 1000 births. In 1960, just over one in three children born in CAR would not live to see their fifth birthday; today six out of seven will survive childhood. Moreover, in spite of the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives, the hardest hit African countries are rebounding, and child and maternal mortality rates are again declining in countries like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Economically, the performance of African countries has been diverse for decades, with some countries consistently growing and others wallowing in economic misery. A number of African countries experienced periods of negative economic growth throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, which, along with population growth throughout, meant that several had the same or even lower levels of per capita income in the 1990s than they had at independence.

Still, many countries began to see positive economic growth in the 1990s or earlier, including countries as diverse as Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia. Some of these economies are reliant on commodities such as oil and minerals, but service and other sectors comprise an increasing share of the economy in many countries, and regional trade has grown as well.

Average levels of development give Africa a bad name, but initial conditions were different from most of the rest of the world, and rates of improvement have often equaled or exceeded those in the developed world. As interest in Africa is piqued by double-digit economic growth figures and opportunities for investment, we will continue to see discussion of a part of the world most people inadvertently essentialize. Fortunately, I think the audacity of despair that has pervaded western thinking on Africa has left little in its wake other than egg on some faces. The audacity of hope has now come to the fore.

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One Reply to “Analyzing Africa: The Audacity of Despair”

  1. “The hopeless continent?” Just another Western grave-like disease. And God bless that this generation could live and see the next 25 years when Afghanistan and Iraq would become “hopeless countries–2nd Africa.” Colonialists sent Africa to its grave ( leave alone the sin that was committed by King Leopard in the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Still, with its gimmicks, the “West” is continuing its exploitation in Africa with so plain pretexts–foreign aid. Couldn’t you say that even all these “AK47” are sent to Africa by the “West?”

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