Economic and social inequality is the elephant in the living room of the current American presidential election cycle. It also powers the yellow vest demonstrations in France, and is an important driver of Brexit sentiment in the United Kingdom. It turns out that it is—or should be—an issue in West Africa as well.
Oxfam and Development Finance International (DFI) have developed the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index (CRI). The index ranks 157 countries by their commitment to reducing inequality through increased spending on health and education, taxing the rich more than the poor, and paying a living wage. On July 9, they released their first CRI Regional Report [PDF]. It is critical of West African governments’ efforts to address social and economic inequality.
The report starts with the arresting observation that six of the ten fastest growing economies in Africa were in West Africa in 2018: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. Three of them—Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Senegal—were among the ten fastest growing economies in the world. But, despite rapid economic growth there has been little or no reduction in poverty, and huge increases in economic inequality. The report concludes that the top one percent in West Africa own more than the combined wealth of everyone in the region.
The top five West African countries on the Index—or those that have demonstrated the highest commitment to reducing inequality—are Cape Verde, Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, the Gambia, and Ivory Coast. At the bottom of the list are Guinea-Bissau, Niger, and Sierra Leone. At the very bottom of the list is Nigeria, the largest economy of them all, though at present with a low rate of economic growth, unlike the top five. Cape Verde and Senegal are usually near the top of most indexes of African development. The surprise here is the presence of Mauritania and the Gambia near the top of the CRI.
Reducing extreme inequality in West Africa will be a challenge even when governments are committed to do so, and, according to the report, not all are. After all, among the most developed economies in the world, like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, inequality is proving intractable. Only the Scandinavian social democracies have had much success, and they have special advantages not shared in the rest of the developed world, and certainly not in West Africa.