When United Nations member countries meet in New York in September to review progress toward meeting the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, it’s a safe bet that one conclusion they’ll reach is that Africa is failing miserably. In an April interview with South Africa’s News24, UN official Osten Chulu said that on the goal of halving extreme poverty, the world as a whole is doing reasonably well, "but Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region, is seriously lagging behind."
Sitting here in Kenya, I find it hard to believe that the situation is really as grim as portrayed by the UN, the World Bank and most of the NGO crowd. OK, maybe the rapid growth of Nairobi shopping malls, complete with fake waterfalls and expensive dress shops, is mainly a middle-class phenomenon. But whenever I travel in the countryside I am equally struck by the fact that so many rural women sport stylish braids or other hair designs—a far cry from the simple head scarves of forty years ago.
So I was very excited a couple of months ago when I read a Reuters story about a new study by two academics, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, a Catalan economist who teaches at Columbia, and Maxim Pinkovskiy, an MIT doctoral student, titled "African Poverty Is Falling… Much Faster Than You Think!" In the paper, published under the auspices of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER, the sober outfit that decrees when recessions have begun and ended), the two argue that "the conventional wisdom that Africa is not reducing poverty is wrong…. In fact, since 1995, African poverty has been falling steadily." The reductions have occurred, Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy report, in all types of countries and all regions. Moreover, economic growth hasn’t benefited only the elites; inequality within countries has declined throughout the continent.
For several days after reading the Reuters piece, I checked the Internet to see how other major news organizations, especially those in the United States and Britain, would follow Reuters’s lead. Given the media’s appetite for provocative news from the world of science and health—whether on how fast the polar ice caps are melting or the value of drinking a glass of wine a day—I assumed that sooner or later everyone would want to report on this latest case of man-bites-dog. But apart from mentions in a couple of blogs and one piece in the Guardian, there was hardly a squeak. (I did find some earlier references to a possible fall in African poverty, but none so definitive or high-profile as the Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy paper.)
My efforts to discover why this was so led me eventually to the Nairobi office of Professor Michael Chege, a Berkeley-trained economist who is a Kenyan government adviser on international development policy. "I can’t fault the methods" used in the paper, Chege told me (although he noted that the standard international data on which virtually all researchers depend isn’t that good to begin with). And, he said, the conclusions are in accord with the results of Kenya’s own poverty surveys.