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Africa: looking beyond statistics

By Peter Run - posted Monday, 27 August 2012

Many major economic forecasts have been projecting a growth in Africa since the early 2000s. This year, the World Bank's key publications, The World Development Report and the World Development Indicators, have both painted a relatively positive picture of Africa. The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals Report has an even more sanguine assessment of African growth. This is a great development.

It is easy to see how this growth trend can continue because the driving force is obvious – the rise of China. The Chinese demand for raw materials and new markets is an oft-cited fuel in the engine propelling African economies. It is also just as easy to see how things can quickly fall apart, to borrow Chinua Achebe's apt term.

That is the tragedy of Africa. Things start to work. People become hopeful. And then, BOOM! All hopes and investment blow up right in your face like the Space Shuttle Challenger.


As Harvard academic, Robert H. Bates shows in his book, When Things Fell Apart, things were looking good for Africa in the 1970s when many of its nation-states emerged from colonialism. Then, coups and civil wars blew all the hope away. Things quite simply fell apart.

When the Economist magazine declared Africa a hopeless continent in May 2000, it did so despite statistics showing that African economies were trending towards growth. Its main reason for making that pessimistic declaration was based on sociopolitical problems that existed then and persist today.

If seen in the context of its time – anarchy in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda, civil war here, coup d'état there, corruption hither and expropriation thither – then one wonders why the article was greeted with the kind of premature chastisement that it received.

Since The Economist's "hopeless continent" article, the growth trend has picked up so much so that they had to reverse their position in 2010. In a metaphorical piece iced with an illustration of a lion exiting a cage, The Economist returned to business reporting and has since kept referring to Africa as a hopeful place for businesses.

I suppose talking up African growth serves to instil confidence in investors and can be seen as a service to the continent. However, there are still strong reasons exercise caution. As Red says in The Shawshank Redemption, "hope is a dangerous thing."

It may have been wrong to declare Africa hopeless; it could be too hasty as well to go to the other extreme. One can hope that Africa grows economically and also improve in other ways.


So far it looks like African economies are growing alongside the same kinds of problems that stand to retard progress at some stage. Consider the following events that have occurred since The Economist's "hopeless continent" piece:

1. Robert Mugabe's racist expropriation of farms from white Zimbabweans has transformed that country from Africa's food basket into a failing authoritarian state needing, you guessed it, FOOD! While Mugabe did this, African leaders said little and did nothing.

2. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has either arrested or issued warrants for African genocidaires and war criminals. And when I refer to the ICC, I take it to be separate from ad hoc international courts such as those set up to prosecute people accused of war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The ICC's most wanted list is full of Africans, which confirms that The Economist's premise that Africa was a hopeless place because of senseless violence was not entirely baseless. Taking this point a step further, the African Union has been protecting President Bashir of Sudan. For example, when the Supreme Court of Malawi flagged that they might enforce the ICC warrant on Bashir for genocide and war crimes if he attended the AU meeting in that country, the venue was moved to Ethiopia to accommodate him.

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About the Author

Peter Run is a PhD student and tutor at The School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. He holds an MA in Journalism from the University of South Australia and is the Author of Theorising Cultural Conflict, VDM Publishing (2010).

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