We may be witnessing an African economic miracle

By almost every measure and in most countries, life is getting better in Africa

Fri, Apr 19, 2013, 06:00

This week the Government and an organisation run by former president Mary Robinson hosted a conference in Dublin on some of the problems and challenges in the developing world. Quite rightly, the event focused on what has yet to be done. But in so doing it may have downplayed progress.

There has been a sustained surge in economic growth across Africa. There is a strong link between economic and political progress, and the two tend to be mutually reinforcing. For decades, bad economics and bad politics fed off each other in Africa. The continent appeared to be trapped in a vicious circle of decline. Now it looks to be in the early stages of a virtuous cycle as the institutional, political and security underpinnings of economic growth strengthen.

A foundation stone for the African renaissance has been greater security in a region that has been plagued by violence since wars of independence began in the middle of the last century.

Now the continent is becoming less bloody. In the 1990s, there were 328,000 fatalities in conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Conflict Data Program at Sweden’s Uppsala University. In the 2000s, fatalities were down by between a half and two-thirds.

Another indicator of the declining propensity to violence is the frequency with which political leaders are overthrown. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there were 17 coups in the 1990s, but just six in the 2000s – the lowest for any decade since independence.

Fears that the sudden death last August of Ethiopia’s long-standing leader, Meles Zenawi, would unleash violent political turmoil have proved unfounded.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world, but it seems to be becoming less so. The bedding down of democracy in many countries is one reason for this.

Elections are held more frequently and in more countries. And those elections mean more. In the last century, only three African leaders walked away from power after losing elections. Since 2000, it has been very different. Since Abdou Diouf accepted his rejection by Senegalese voters in March 2000, peaceful transitions have become almost commonplace, at least in western and southern Africa. Mali, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, and Nigeria have all enjoyed peaceful transitions, as have Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia in the south.

Elections mean little if the politicians who win them then misuse and abuse power but here again improvements are taking place. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, established by a Sudanese entrepreneur with a loathing of corruption (and on whose board Mary Robinson sits), measures the quality of governance in all African states. It finds that in a big majority of countries the state is serving citizens better now than when the foundation first started measuring such data in 2000.

One link between politics and economics is the middle classes. They have long been associated with political stability. When people have a stake in society, they are less inclined to want to tear everything down. Middle classes not only provide democracy’s ballast, they are the drivers of economic growth via their entrepreneurial dynamism. With more middle class households in Africa now than in India, the rise of Africa’s bourgeoisie augurs well for the future.

By almost every measure – of health, wealth and education – and for most of its people, life in Africa is getting better.

All of these developments are perhaps best encapsulated by the UN’s Human Development Index. Over decades, that organisation has measured health, education and poverty indicators across the world to assess people’s quality of life. Since the turn of the century, human development has not only improved in every one of sub-Saharan Africa’s 45 countries but gains were bigger in the 2000s than in any previous decade.

In many ways, Africa remains the world’s most miserable place. None of its longstanding problems can be declared solved and it faces some new ones, including rising global food prices and climate change, issues discussed this week in Dublin.

The scale of challenges cannot be underestimated. But Africa’s prospects are improving. The dashed hopes of the post-independence decades now stand a better chance than ever of being fulfilled.