Last month, I wrote about the economic and social reforms that have boosted Africa’s growth, and the challenges the region still faces going forward. This week, David Smith of The Guardian wrote on a similar theme, questioning the popular narrative of “Africa rising.” Based on survey data, Smith argues that recent optimism about the continent is misguided: although there has been economic growth, it has not helped average Africans. Indeed, in some countries – including in South Africa, the continent’s largest economy - poverty rates are increasing.
Smith cites a recent report by the Afrobarometer research project, which found that recent economic growth in the region is “failing to trickle down.” More than two in five Africans surveyed reported that they regularly cannot fulfill basic needs. Overall, the gains of Africa’s recent economic growth remain too skewed toward small groups of elites. This is not good news for democracy on the continent either, since research shows that the success of emerging democracies very much depends on whether democracy materially improves people’s lives.
As I noted in my earlier post, economic and social reforms have occurred unevenly across the continent. To move forward and address rampant poverty, the region will have to overcome major challenges, particularly related to education and the growing youth bulge. The Afrobarometer report supports these claims: it finds that higher levels of education can help reduce poverty, as can access to resources such as piped water and electrical grids. The Obama administration’s commitment to “Power Africa” by doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, where two thirds of the population lacks access to power, is good news on this front.
The Afrobarometer report also points to deep frustration about lack of employment. Seventy-one percent of Africans surveyed were disappointed with their government’s ability to create jobs and reduce income inequality. Africa’s current mix of economic activity remains overly reliant on natural resources, so to boost employment, economies must diversify; and governments must better educate youth so that they can participate in an expanded economy. Otherwise, Africa’s wealth will continue to overly benefit elites.