Until recently the predominant media narrative, at least in “the West”, was that Africa was a continent wracked by famine, poverty, disease and conflict. This narrative is still presented on television and in some newspapers, however more recently it has been challenged by another discourse of “Africa Rising”. Statistics are now cited, such as that the continent is now the fastest growing in the world or that it hosts five of the top ten fastest-growing economies. According to several consultancy and financial journalism reports Africa is now the global economic hotspot for investment and growth. However just as the previous discourse was problematic and over-generalised its challenger, “Africa Rising” may also obscure as much as it illuminates the new realities on the continent. It is important to look at these issues dispassionately and in this short blog post I want to raise some issues around the new narrative.
In the Africa Rising discourse the continent is often presented as a monolithic block, obscuring the realities of highly variegated economic geography and performance. While the continent hosts some of the world’s fastest growing economies, it is also home to conflict-affected countries such as Mali, Central African Republic and Libya, and Zimbabwe is in deflation. Furthermore, as Morten Jerven has shown, the nature of official statistics across much of Africa is highly problematic. Add to this rapid population growth across much of the continent and impressive headline economic growth figures become much less so.
Questions can also be raised about the quality of the continent’s economic growth – who is the continent “rising” for? According to a forthcoming book by Ian Taylor, only four per cent of Africans earn more than US $10 a day. This casts doubt on the supposed widescale emergence of a consuming African middle class which will drive economic growth domestically. However the nature of resource extractive economic growth in Africa has made some people very rich, particularly the continent’s 55 US dollar billionaires. One of these is Isabel Dos Santos, Africa’s first female billionaire and “coincidentally” the President of Angola’s daughter.
Questions can also be raised about the sustainability and quality of growth. What is the continent rising towards? According to statistics from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development most of the continent is experiencing economic structural retrogression as the proportion of manufacturing in gross domestic product falls. This is very problematic because manufacturing is still the heartland of innovation, linkage and multiplier effects, and export diversification for most successfully developing economies. This means that much of Africa’s growth is still natural resource dependent and consequently unsustainable, by definition. Also, high price volatility for primary commodities makes government planning extremely difficult and uncertain, in most cases.
While the statistics are problematic, according to the United Nations agencies the absolute number of people living in absolute poverty in Africa continues to grow and inequality is increasing. Furthermore much of the continent’s current economic growth is unsustainable. This is not to deny the improvements and achievements which have been made. Positive economic growth is undeniably better than negative in terms of its social and political impacts. It allows for potentially positive, rather than zero sum games thereby reducing conflict, as has happened in many instances across the continent. What is essential though is that natural resource rents are invested in the structural transformation of the continent’s economies (see this book for more details). This in turn depends on the emergence of more developmental states across the continent. Then perhaps it can be said that Africa is rising in a more sustained, equitable and broad-based way.