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Should we hope or despair about Africa?

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

After an appearance on a television show recently I was challenged to back up a claim I made about reasons to be positive about the future for African economies. I was grateful for the challenge as it made me realise that those of us who do see much to be hopeful about need to keep saying it, again and again, especially now when things look bleak.

It’s true that on paper, there’s a lot that is worrying on the continent: Covid-19 has destroyed jobs and opportunities, and while the Global North is vaccinating itself back to “normality” at a groundbreaking pace it could be years before the majority of people in Africa are protected against the current pandemic.

Worse yet, many leaders across the continent who promised a new era have shown themselves to be just as addicted to war, corruption and single-party power as their predecessors.

But the point I stand by is that the underlying trends of the last 20 years are ones of real change and progress. By recognising that, and not giving in to a negative narrative about the continent sparked by the latest dip, we can plan our recovery from the last 18 months and deliver a better future.

What do the numbers say?

This isn’t rose-tinted vision. There is incontrovertible evidence that major progress was made on key socio-economic issues in the years leading up to 2020 across sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s some figures from the World Bank, rounded up by the Brookings Institute:

  • Infant mortality fell by 52 percent over the three decades from 1990
  • The incidence of HIV has dropped by 75 percent since 2000
  • Access to electricity has risen by 71% since 1996
  • Financial inclusion rose 54% in less than a decade – by 2017 nearly two out of three adults in Africa had a formal bank account compared to 2011.
  • Most importantly, the number of people living in absolute poverty was consistently falling year after year, by 34 percent since 1990.

In 1990, life expectancy for someone born in sub-Saharan Africa was just 50 years of age. In 2019 it was 61, and continuing to rise annually.

The most significant ongoing improvement across much of sub-Saharan Africa has been the education of young women. Pre-Covid, 96% of young girls were enrolled in primary schools across the continent, compared to less than two-thirds in 1990. Better education and opportunities for women is why birth rates are plummeting across the continent – especially in countries such as Kenya and South Africa.

And what of the economy? Growth numbers for the sub-Saharan region – with the caveat that they are notoriously unreliable – have only been negative twice since 1990. The African Development Bank predicts 3.4% growth this year, compared to a 1.9% decline in 2020. It’s true that foreign direct investments have fallen in recent years, largely as a result of drops in commodity prices and investor wariness of new regulations or old corruption schemes. But look at where the growth areas are for investors: IT and technology and start-ups. That’s got to be a sign of confidence in the future.

Problem statements

Development data is useful longitudinally – a video, not a snapshot. Looking over time at these key aspects of African development data, we see that it’s ‘three steps forward and two back’, not the reverse. Of course, it should be better, but don’t paint it all dark and hide the positive trends, that’s fake news too.

The authors of the latest Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Index and Dashboards Report (funded by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation), found that out of 884 goals (17 SDGs in 52 countries in sub-Saharan Africa), fewer than 10% were declining against targets. It’s not fantastic news – the overall trend is that progress is not fast enough to meet many of the SDGs by 2030 – but it’s not the dystopian picture of collapse painted by some.

So why is that so hard to believe in some quarters that things are demonstrably getting better? There are two explanations that come to mind.

Firstly, South Africans are truly terrible at “knowing themselves”. IPSOS’ excellent Perils of Perception report surveys residents in multiple countries about common issues, and compares their responses with underlying data. It’s broadest annual report, in 2017, found that South Africans came bottom of the table when it came to knowing themselves, and consistently overestimated negative statistics. Perhaps, it’s just that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “cynical people are just passionate people who have been disappointed once too often”?

The second explanation is more of a challenge. Is it because the problems that remain are the deep, systemic ones that force us to face up to centuries of inequality and deep-rooted institutional failures?

When we look at the SDG dashboard, there’s been strong improvements in climate action, life expectancy, health and absolute poverty. But the most-challenged areas are things like strong institutions and the rule of law, hunger and sustainable living.

Are these the wicked problems that call on quality of character? To change them requires us to change our own lives and expectations of what it means to live in Africa, to realise a positive vision for the future if we have one.

The eternal optimist

It really doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty. We need to focus. Crime rises when institutions are weak and structural inequalities remain. We have the data to show why sustainable cities aren’t a “nice to have” but are essential to fighting the climate crisis, restoring human dignity and economic growth. We have to create action around these pain points.

And we need to identify those positive trends pre-Covid-19, especially those regarding women’s education, and work doubly hard to ensure progress isn’t set back by years. We have to support girls now in order to ensure the trends pick up as the pandemic eases.

And as we come out of Covid-19, there is opportunity in one of the most important developments on the continent for many years: the introduction of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).

For the first time, there is the potential for a strong, business-led rather than politic-led, recovery for the continent. The World Economic Forum describes AfCFTA as a “gamechanger” that will be help us build back better. The launch of AfCFTA shows real promise. It’s a chance to build strong supply networks and industrial relationships that capitalise on the successes of the last 20 years, and provide the infrastructure to improve those areas that lag behind.

And as citizens, we have to act; recall Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Citizen in a Republic’ speech. It will take our strong leadership, vision and a desire for change. And the willingness to allow and promote hope, more than every once in a while. Africa rising, still.

Originally published on Daily Maverick


Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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