Currently there are different stories trying to grasp the dynamic taking place on the African continent
On the one hand, there is a positive narrative saying the continent is on the rise. The Economist in 2000 called it the ‘hopeless continent’. Now the story is of hopefulness: they recently devoted a special issue called The Hopeful Continent showing trends towards better governance, economic growth and improving living standards.
Not everyone agrees, however. In reaction to the idea of hopeful Africa, Rick Rowden countered with an article called The Myth of Africa’s Rise, in Foreign Policy magazine, stating the growth is not structural. Even on the The Economist’s own online pages, a debate was started on whether Africa’s growth is over-hyped.
To find the truth we need facts. There are a number of ways of measuring and quantifying the perceived ‘rise’ or otherwise of an entire continent and this month saw the release of The United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) report, The Rise of the South, which focuses on the improvements of the developing countries. The report showed that out of the 14 countries with an annual growth of their HDI value above 2%, 11 are sub-Saharan African.
As well as that report, the African Capacity Building Initiative’s African Capacity Indicators (ACI) Review was also released. It looked at the management of natural resources, an important resource for Africa’s economic growth. The report notes that most African countries have a good policy environment.
So what does all this data tell us about the current state of Africa and how can we comment on these polarising narratives in the context of data from the HDI and the ACI?
Although the HDI report shows important improvements on the scores of African countries, 37 of the 45 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are sub-Saharan, the data also shows the diversity of the African continent. For example, Seychelles, the only African ‘Very High Development’ country, has a score 0.5 points higher than the bottom two; Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Libya is the country with the highest life expectancy at birth, 75 years, while in Sierra Leone life expectancy is only 48 years. So what to make of it?
To comment on these figures, it is important to look at the type of data. The numbers sometimes understate improvements and, at other times, overestimate them. Firstly, because the various indicators used for the HDI value are translated into a single score and corresponding place on the ranking, improvements don’t always result in a higher placement. Rwanda, with its remarkable increase of an HDI score from 0.2 to 0.4 in 10 years, rose only 2 places in the ranking. That most African countries are still ranked as LDCs can overshadow the progress they’ve made.
On the other hand, the index looks at very few variables. For the income indicator, only GDP is considered. The sole focus on GDP excludes data on the percentage of the population living under $1.25 a day. Some of the countries, which did see an increase in their income index, such as Ethiopia, still have 39% of their population living below poverty standard. In Liberia, the DRC, Burundi and Madagascar more than 80% of the population is below this standard.
Two of the countries in the ACI top 10 for natural resource management, Namibia and Zimbabwe, have very low inequality-adjusted income scores. Although these countries do know how to manage their resources, the benefits don’t trickle down to their entire population. In these cases the HDI scores don’t reflect the still discouraging realities behind them.
African realities got somewhat lost in the HDI report because of the grand rhetoric on the South’s achievements. Averages on the South are distorted by the massive improvements of China, Brazil and India. Looking at the composition of the HDI scores, measured using a health, education and income index, of the African countries, they score highest on health, not income. The biggest contributor to low scores on development is education, calculated by looking at adult literacy rate and combined gross enrolment. Most of the African LDCs have a very slow improvement for the years of schooling and the average years of schooling is now 4 years. Four outliers for this pattern are Swaziland, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe who all have about 7 years of schooling. Zimbabwe improved from 2,7 years in 1980 to 7,2 in 2012.
However, low education scores don’t even reflect the most alarming features. The Africa Learning Barometer shows low levels of participation in higher-level education and high levels of children leaving school without having mastered the skills of reading and maths. An analysis by the International Labour Organisation has shown that for graduates to enter the labour market one of the biggest problems is a mismatch between the skills that are needed and those that the graduates have achieved.
As the current narratives on Africa focus on the national and continental economic development, there is danger of overlooking these matters, which still need to be addressed. For example, more equal spreading of wealth and improvement of the usability of graduates on the job market. Getting the narrative right is important because narratives can influence policy decisions. Especially with the debate on the post-2015 global development agenda and the upcoming EU – Africa Summit, getting a straightforward narrative on the dynamics of the African continent is an interesting task.
Polarised narratives on Africa’s growth continue to be hotly debated. But is it really useful? For both narratives data can be used to argue for their side. To get a clear view on the actual dynamic, a ‘dot’-narrative is a good alternative. I’ve invented this term to put a label on the type of narrative I believe is needed to describe the current dynamic on the African continent. Such a narrative acknowledges positive developments and, without detracting from the improvements, also states the remaining challenges.
The economic growth on the African continent is a significant and positive development. The economic approach is shifting from aid to investment, which gives more room for African actors to step in. Yet the challenge remains how to ensure these economic gains will also translate into gains for the majority of Africans. The only way to get real on the narrative on the status of the African continent is by a balanced account both applauding positive developments while pointing out areas that still need improvement.
Patty Claassens is an intern in ECDPM’s Africa’s Change Dynamics Programme
This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.