Call me a cynic, but I've been skeptical of the African economic miracle story. We keep hearing that "six of the world's ten fastest growing economies" over the last decade are in sub-Saharan Africa, but rarely that three of those six -- Angola, Chad, and Nigeria -- depend on oil, and thus could fall to earth as prices decline. But the Economist has convinced me that growth is broader and deeper than I thought. Its recent special report, "A Hopeful Continent," notes that across Africa income per capita has grown 30 percent over the last decade, after having shrunk 10 percent over the previous 20 years. Projected growth over the next decade is 6 percent annually.
That leaves me with a few questions: What does that tell us about development policy? Is this a story about aid? Democracy? Economic policy? The commodities markets?
First of all, is the boom even real? Is Africa itself hopeful, or just little bits of it? Todd Moss, head of the Emerging Africa Project at the Center for Global Development, says that he views the changes in Africa as "big and important and historically different from the past," but he adds that "the dominant trend is divergence among countries." For every Ghana or Ethiopia that is making durable progress, there is a Chad that is "stuck in the past and free-riding on the commodities boom." Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is somewhere in the middle, its banking sector set to dominate the continent while the mighty torrent of oil money corrupts politics and barely reaches the poor.
But there's no question about what distinguishes the success stories from the failures -- governance. Moss points out that about half of African contrives have improved on indicators of good governance, and half haven't. Oliver August, author of the Economist report (yes, the famously anonymous "newspaper" now seems to award bylines for its most ambitious efforts), noted that he traveled 15,800 miles over Africa's roads without once being asked for a bribe.
I was astonished at the description of West Africa, a region I've visited three times over the last decade and viewed as a sinkhole of ethnic violence, big-man government, and drug money corruption. In Senegal, August notes, the apparently ageless President Abdoulaye Wade was ridiculed when he tried to stand for a third term despite a constitutional prohibition; in Guinea, a virtual narco-state five years ago, a civilian leader has put the generals in their place; Sierra Leone is at peace; and Ivory Coast is coming back to life after a civil war. On the other hand, Mali, which in 2007 hosted the biennial meeting of the Community of Democracies, is now a barely governed mess.
So good governance is the key. Is that news? To some people, yes. In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs argued that "Africa's governance is poor because Africa is poor" -- not the other way around. The real reason Africa was poor was the unlucky accident of geography -- bad soil, disease, lack of access to ports and navigable rivers -- and the self-perpetuating nature of poverty. The only solution was thus to kick-start development with foreign aid. Sachs described poor countries as desperately sick patients who needed the care of Western donors, and lamented that the practice of "clinical economics" had not reached the subtlety of clinical medicine. Once it did, governance would take care of itself.
Foreign aid has clearly played an important role in reducing infant and maternal mortality in Africa, decreasing the incidence of malaria and AIDS, and raising the fraction of children who attend school -- all immensely important advances. But it is almost certainly not responsible for economic growth, as the economist William Easterly showed in his polemic, White Man's Burden. And it is economic growth, far more than aid, that has provided the resources which have made social advances possible. Over the last decade, as Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA, the organization co-founded by Bono in 2002, points out, foreign assistance to African has tripled to $50 billion, but domestic resources have risen almost six-fold to $400 billion.