Africa's Amazing Rise and What it Can Teach the World

Ten years into the continent's quiet revolution, lessons for the developing world

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A construction worker walks on scaffolding on a tunnel project under construction near the Kenyan capital, Nairobi / Reuters

The poverty mafia once controlled the development debate in Africa. No longer.

The old approach was about how to prevent Africa from getting poorer. All development goals were essentially negative, as experts wallowed in risk-aversion and promoted various doomsday scenarios of an Africa with a rapidly growing population.

The new thinking on development is to share Africa's wealth more equitably. That's right: Africa's wealth.

In 2000, when I first visited Sub-Saharan Africa, to report on the civil war in Burundi, the international community was preparing itself for a new round of development failures. Wealth was a dirty word. The influential economist Paul Collier even suggested that African countries were better off poor because wealth -- especially resources that could be sold on international markets -- inevitably fueled civil wars.

Yet at that same moment when leading development thinkers saw the most modest of futures for the sub-Saharan as a region, a diverse group of determined African technocrats -- from Ghana to Uganda, Zambia to Kenya, South Africa to Rwanda -- joined forces with technologically savvy, globally oriented capitalists to launch a quiet revolution in development thinking. In time, their changes helped lead to Africa's dramatically improved economic performance, and greater confidence in their ideas.

The economic evidence that they were right, building since the start of the new century, now seems incontrovertible. In the ten years from 2000 to 2010, six of the world's ten fastest-growing countries were in sub-Saharan Africa: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique, and Rwanda. In eight of the past ten years, sub-Saharan Africa has grown faster than Asia, according to The Economist. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund expects Africa to grow at a rate of 6%, about the same as Asia.

Ten years ago, development was synonymous with disappointment for Africa watchers, to paraphrase the chapter in Frederick Cooper's classic survey, "Africa Since 1940." The decades following de-colonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw metrics in economics, health, and well-being decline almost across the board. Writing in 2002, Cooper observed, "No word captures the hopes and ambitions of African leaders, its educated populations and many of its farmers and workers ... better than development." Yet "development and disappointment," Cooper concluded, went hand in hand as the development strategies of African governments, and the foreign-assistance strategies of the international community, proved ineffective and, to some critics, even retarded African development.

What changed? Partly, the boom in commodities. Sky-high copper prices have lifted copper-rich Zambia. Record cocoa prices are bringing $2 billion annually into Ghana. Kenyan farmers, mostly small, are responsible for $1 billion in annual exports of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, a figure that dwarfs the country's traditional coffee and tea exports. And, of course, high demand for oil and gas has helped a number of countries enormously. But even countries without such natural resources, such as Rwanda, have seen significant gains, mostly because of improved economic governance and the return of money and skills from Africans who left their countries during the dog days. Rwanda, for instance, long an importer of food, now grows enough to satisfying the needs of its people, and even exports cash crops such as coffee for the first time.

Technology also plays an important part in the new African boom. Probably the most astonishing development success since 2000 in Africa has been the communications revolution. A dozen years ago, merely making a phone call (or receiving one) was virtually impossible even in Africa's most important commercial centers. An elite business person might hire two or three people fulltime simply to repeatedly dial phone numbers over the crumbling, puny, and perversely sub-optimal government-owned telephone systems. Nigeria, at the time a country of 100 million people, had at most 100,000 working dial tones. It was not remarkable for one call out of every 50 made to be completed. Naturally, the effect on productivity was devastating, but equally as bad was the sense of isolation. Everything had to be done face to face, consigning people to long trips for even trivial maneuvers. Waiting became a way of life.

No longer. The advent of mobile telephones has brought instant communications to hundreds of millions of Africans, rich and poor, urban and rural. Africans are now on the move. Text messaging and digital money-transfer services, such as Safaricom's M-pesa in Kenya, have transformed ordinary life. Yet this most visible of all African advances, this gigantic step forward in linking Africans to each other and to people around the world, occurred with virtually zero assistance from the professional development community of donors and economists, aid workers and development agencies. Uniformly, these "experts" said Africans were simply too poor to benefit from mobile telecommunications, so they provided scant assistance in the 1990s and early 2000s when African governments, in the main, relaxed their long hegemony over telecommunications and permitted private companies to lead the push into mobile phones.

Some Africans have made fortunes. The Sudanese engineer Mo Ibrahim even became a billionaire from piecing together a regional network of mobile companies. In virtually every single African nation, the leading mobile phone company is now the leading taxpayer to the government, the leading local donor to local causes, and one of the leading employers.

But more important than the economic impact of the mobile revolution was the mental impact. The twin values of self-reliance and exceeding expectations were cemented by the success in mobile telephony, which compelled development experts to rethink their commitment to African under-development.

The striking improvements in living standards in Africa, especially for small farmers, have triggered a new optimism about the prospects for the continent. While gloomy "Afro-pessimists" still dominate the global debate, more optimistic and pragmatic voices are starting to challenge old orthodoxies. "Policies devised by governments and donors imply a daunting lack of ambition," declared a 2010 report from the London-based Africa Research Institute. While the report is specifically about "why Africa can make it big in agriculture," the same observation -- that international development experts inexplicably downplay African prospects -- could be made across industries.

Even African nationalists missed the turn towards more expansive development aims. Damiso Moyo, a Zambian economist working in London, was so intent on bashing the wrong-headedness of Western economic advisers in her 2010 polemic Dead Aid that she failed to notice the rise of an indigenous capitalist class across the Sub-Saharan. Moyo also insisted that China, whose economic influence in the region rose from almost nothing ten years ago, should provide a development model for Africa because its own internal resources could not sustain growth.

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Expectations are radically different now. A decade ago, The Economist labeled Africa "the hopeless continent." In December, the magazine predicted that "the continent's impressive growth looks likely to continue." Apologizing for their former Afro-pessimism, the editors now conclude "a profound change has taken hold" in the region.

The conversation about development, still too often mired in outmoded discussions of African poverty and stagnation, must catch up to the realities on the ground. A decade ago, development experts lectured African governments on the importance of crafting pro-poor policies.  Now the question increasingly asked is how Africans can share their wealth more equitably. Inequality in sub-Saharan is rising even as, in most countries, the basic standard is also rising. In a lengthy essay of my own on African inequality, published in 2010 by the Milken Institute Review of Economic Policy, I cited the work of Xavier Sala-i-Martin, an economist at Columbia University who found ample evidence for "exploding" wealth inequality in the region.

Other development challenges remain. While women and children are faring much better in the region, on balance, than they were a generation ago. The need for more improvement is still urgent. Public health also lags economic growth. So too do gains in human rights and effective government. Finally, a surge in anti-gay attitudes and actions highlight the problem that newfound prosperity can fuel prejudice.

These development "deficits" raise persistent doubts about how far market-oriented policies can take African societies. In the next wave of creative thinking about development, the nation-state must return as a subject of conversation. African states need to take a stronger role in promoting general welfare even as they cannot return to the practices of the past that stifled individual initiative, robbed "surplus capital" from the enterprising, and reinforced social inequality, consigning women and children to the worst forms of abuse. Only strong nation-states, committed to fairness, can manage the new tensions brought on by wealth and insure that the old risk-averse agenda of African development -- obsessing over preventing further slippage into poverty rather than nakedly pursuing legitimate achievable gains -- becomes an artifact of history.