Africa’s Rise—Interrupted?

Author:Steven Radelet

The region’s future depends on much more than fluctuations in commodity prices


Africa’s Rise—Interrupted? Finance & Development, June 2016, Vol. 53, No. 2

Steven Radelet

The region’s future depends on much more than fluctuations in commodity prices

Is Africa’s surge of progress over? During the past two decades, many countries across the continent changed course and achieved significant gains in income, reductions in poverty, and improvements in health and education. But the recent optimism seems to have swiftly given way to a wave of pessimism. Commodity prices have dropped, the world economy has slowed, and economic growth has stalled in several sub-Saharan African countries. If high commodity prices alone drove recent advances, the prospects for further gains seem dim.

But the reality is more complex, and the outlook—especially over the long run—is more varied than many now suggest. To be sure, many countries are confronting some of the most difficult tests they have faced for a decade or more, and even with sound management, progress is likely to slow in the next few years. But for others—especially oil importers with more diversified export earnings—growth remains fairly buoyant. At a deeper level, although high commodity prices helped many countries, the development gains of the past two decades—where they occurred—had their roots in more fundamental factors, including improved governance, better policy management, and a new generation of skilled leaders in government and business, which are likely to persist into the future.

Managing the global slowdown—alongside other growing threats such as climate change—will require strong leadership, forceful action, and difficult choices. Overall growth is likely to slow in the next few years. But in the long run, the outlook for continued broad development progress is still solid for many countries in the region, especially those that diversify their economies, increase competitiveness, and further strengthen institutions of governance.

Two decades of progressThe recent slowdown follows two decades of strong progress, at least for many countries, that began in the mid-1990s and included faster economic growth, higher incomes, declines in poverty, widespread improvements in health and education, and other development gains (see Chart 1). Since 1995 GDP growth across the continent has averaged about 4.3 percent a year, fully 3 percentage points higher than in the previous two decades. But it would be misleading to suggest that rapid growth rates were universal across the continent. They varied widely, with about half the countries in the region moving forward and others changing little. In the 20 fastest growing countries—excluding oil exporters—GDP growth averaged a robust 5.8 percent for two decades, and real incomes per person more than doubled. But in other countries, growth was much slower, and in eight countries, income per person actually fell. Some of the differences are stark: in Rwanda real income per person more than doubled; in Zimbabwe it fell 30 percent.

Where growth accelerated, poverty finally began to fall. The share of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90/day in constant 2011 prices) dropped from 61 percent in 1993 to 43 percent in 2012, a decline of nearly 1 percentage point a year for two decades. In some countries (for example, Senegal), poverty declined even more; in others (Democratic Republic of the Congo), not at all.

The gains in health were even bigger. Since the mid-1990s the share of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen more than half, from 17 percent to 8 percent. Remarkably, every single country in sub-Saharan Africa has reduced child mortality in the past two decades. Malaria deaths have fallen by half, and deaths related to HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have both fallen by one-third. More than three-quarters of children are enrolled in primary school, up from just half in the 1980s. More than two-thirds of girls now complete primary school, which will increase their earning potential; equally as important, it means that they will have fewer children and that those children will be healthier and better educated (see “In the Driver’s Seat” in this issue of F&D). These trends bode well for the future, as they signal the beginnings of a strong human capital skills base.

Four key forces helped propel the resurgence in the countries that moved forward.

First, there was a marked improvement in governance, at least in many countries. According to the U.S. think tank Freedom House, the number of electoral democracies in Africa has jumped from just four in 1990 to 23 today. With democracy came better governance, including more political freedoms, less violence, greater...

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