Brace Yourself: Good News on Africa

Brace Yourself: Good News on Africa

A recent economic study rejects the conventional depiction of the continent as a basket case.



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.

But in a world in which the conventional wisdom that Africa is a basket case is so strong, it’s hard to break through. The Sala-i-Martin/Pinkovskiy paper "is going to produce a storm, but unfortunately it will be just among the academic types," Chege predicted. So far, it has been more of a mild breeze than a storm, but Chege was right in foreseeing that the study wouldn’t get much attention beyond the world of professional economists. Probably the most prominent of those who responded was Martin Ravallion, director of the Development Research Group at the World Bank, one of the institutions cited by Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy as having a gloomy view of Africa. Ravallion wrote a dismissive blog post on the World Bank site, noting that owing to population growth, even if poverty rates have fallen, which he said his own research showed, the actual number of poor people has not. The business world was more receptive. Razia Khan, head of macroeconomic research at Standard Chartered Bank in Britain, referred to the paper in a May report predicting that foreign investment in Africa is "likely to rise significantly from current levels." I found the Khan report particularly interesting, coming as it did soon after Actis, a Britain-based private equity firm, announced it would put $1 billion into African investments ranging from consumer goods to financial services in order to cater to the continent’s growing middle class.

So just where does what Khan refers to as "Afro-pessimism" come from? "There is a vested interest in keeping the aid industry going," Chege said. "You have people in government who have an addiction to this money, and you have all these organizations and people like UNDP [the UN Development Programme] and Jeffrey Sachs who have an interest in projecting things in negative terms. If things are OK, you are destroying their careers; you’re going at their jobs."

If that sounds like conspiracy thinking, it’s not just Africans who are members of the cabal. New York University economics professor William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, wrote a paper published in World Development in early 2008 in which he argued that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had been deliberately set up in such a way that African countries could not possibly meet them. As one example he cited the first goal of reducing by half the poverty rate between 1990 and 2015. To achieve the goal, he wrote, all of Africa would have to achieve 7 percent annual growth over a decade—something that only one in ten countries in the world achieved in any decade between 1965 and 2005.

Even if the motive in thus framing the MDGs was to raise more aid money for Africa, Easterly wrote, the result—a litany of failures—"matters because it is demoralizing to African leaders and activists, and because it might have real consequences for things like private foreign investment to reinforce the stereotype that ‘Africa always fails.’" Elaborating on his comments in a recent phone conversation, Easterly said you don’t have to be an extreme cynic to conclude that negative images "are good for NGO donations and good for aid budgets." Speaking about the language in which development plans for Africa are couched, he said, "At bottom there is a kind of ‘We white people know best’ attitude. They may use words like ’empowerment,’ but who is actually going to make decisions? The aid givers."

As if to underscore the accuracy of these observations, and their application beyond Africa, the New York Times ran a front-page story on April 13 headlined "Maternal Deaths Decline Sharply Across the Globe." The story noted that according to the editor of The Lancet, which published the maternal deaths study, "some advocates for women’s health tried to pressure The Lancet into delaying publication of the new findings, fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause." Easterly remarked on his blog, "People have long accused aid officials and advocates of being afraid of putting themselves out of business by success, but it’s rare that such an episode is documented so clearly."

Sadly, many Africans seem to have accepted the negative picture of themselves they see reflected in the reports of the UN and others. Scrolling through responses posted on the websites where the Sala-i-Martin/Pinkovskiy paper was discussed, I found that the most vehement disagreements seemed to come from Africans. "To suggest that poverty is falling in Africa, something must be wrong with those indicators," wrote one Ugandan on the World Bank site. The comments put me in mind of a remark made recently by an older Kenyan woman I know when we got to talking about why Kenyans seem to delight in claiming to have the worst roads and the worst politicians in the world. Such comments reflect deep anxieties, not just a love of bragging, she said. During the colonial time "we were told constantly that we were stupid," she said. "It’s not easy to overcome that."

When the UN countries meet in September, I hope someone will speak to the issue of whether Africa is really "failing" in its pursuit of the MDGs or whether, as Sala-i-Martin, Chege and Easterly would argue, in some areas Africa is doing quite well. And I also hope that more Westerners will come here and decide for themselves whether to be pessimists or optimists about this continent. One such Westerner wrote on an Economist site devoted to the Sala-i-Martin/Pinkovskiy paper that during a trip to Uganda, he found himself in the middle of nowhere with a broken-down car and no phone. A woman selling fruit on the side of the road offered use of her cellphone—for a price—and then produced cold Coca-Colas from a hidden refrigerator connected to a generator. "There we were in the middle of ‘darkest Africa’ sipping a cool beverage waiting for our ride," the Westerner wrote. "We had cash and she was able to supply our demand."

My own experiences aren’t quite as dramatic, but they illustrate the same point. My husband and I have made several friends in a Masai area where, for the past three years, we’ve gone hiking on the weekends. We told them recently that in exchange for their letting us walk freely on their land, we’d like to contribute in some way toward local education. The community elders discussed our offer and proposed that we pay for a teacher to teach the youngest children, who found it very hard to navigate the steep hill and long walk to the nearest government school. The cost would be minimal—something on the order of $70 a month. But how to get the teacher her pay? Someone suggested M-Pesa, a cellphone money-transfer technology used by 10 million subscribers in Kenya.

But here’s the kicker: despite being from one of those supposedly advanced countries where people wring their hands over Africa’s plight, I wasn’t yet one of those subscribers.

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