November 29, 2013


A Giant Awakens: Inside Africa's Economic Boom (The Economist, 11/29/13)

Africa's boom can be seen in many indicators: the volume of cars (and accompanying traffic jams) on the streets of its major cities, the glittering shopping malls and the major infrastructure projects. Highways, rail lines, airports, dams, power plants, pipelines and factories are all being built, and megacities such as Lagos, Nairobi, Addis Ababa are seeing the emergence of industrial parks and special economic zones.

It's the start of a period of new growth and fresh beginnings, and many Africans seem more confident now than they have at any other time since the end of the colonial era, in the early 1960s. Economists attribute this to three main factors: political stability, economic reforms and a push toward technological innovation that has gripped the entire continent.

Many countries have become better governed, and Africa as a whole is more peaceful and democratic than it once was. When the Cold War ended, just three out of 53 African nations had halfway functional democracies. Today, that figure is 25 out of 54. Aside from chronic conflict zones -- such as those in Congo, Sudan and Somalia -- the number of civil wars and military coups has decreased, as has the excessive use of violence.

At the same time, a revolution is taking place in the information and communications sector, as Africa connects itself to the world via modern data highways. Nowhere is the spread of the Internet as all-encompassing as it is between Cairo and Cape Town, and nowhere is mobile-phone use increasing as explosively. There are now 650 million African mobile-phone users -- more than in North America.

In Kenya, young local IT experts are doing globally pioneering work in developing innovative mobile-phone applications. Development experts call this "leapfrogging": As Africa catches up on modernization, it is able to skip the industrial age completely and jump straight to the digital future. And free access to information in turn stimulates economic activity, strengthens civil society and brings about societal change, especially in major cities. In this way, the young people and women of Africa are emancipating themselves.

Driving this progress is a new middle class, which the African Development Bank estimates encompasses over 310 million people -- roughly equivalent to the population of the US.

Those who have made it into this African middle class don't fit the cliché of the helpless, destitute African. These are self-confident citizens who have jobs, buy apartments and invest in their children's education, just as members of the middle class do around the world.

"The lions are on the move" is the new motto of the African elite, with the phrase being a play on the term "Asian tiger." After decades of decline, African nations are hoping to benefit from the same demographic dividend that made it possible for countries such as South Korea and Taiwan to make a leap of progress. By 2050, at least 2 billion people will live in Africa, accounting for one quarter of the world's labor force.

Skeptics, though, pose the question of whether Africa's current economic miracle might be nothing but a flash in the pan, fueled primarily by high raw-material prices and improving life for only a thin layer of the upper class. In resource-rich countries, such as Gabon and Angola, many people experience those resources not as a blessing, but a curse. While those in power grow rich unchecked, everyone else remains just as poor as ever.

Millions of Africans continue to go to bed hungry. Millions suffer from disease and epidemics. Millions of children attend abysmal schools.

Nevertheless, the economic growth is bearing its first fruits. In many places, living conditions have visibly improved. Child mortality, illiteracy rates and AIDS infection rates are declining, and life expectancy has increased by 10 percent.

Even those with a pessimistic view of Africa are looking on in astonishment as the continent once considered an ailing giant gradually picks itself up off the ground. In fact, Africa's economic successes of the last decade have most likely had more of a positive impact on it than all the development aid it received over the last half-century.

Posted by at November 29, 2013 6:27 PM

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