The African Development Bank (AfDB) has just published its African Economic Outlook for 2018. This year’s revamped publication – shorter than usual, analytically well-structured, and written in lucid prose, without hyperbole – in some ways mirrors Africa’s own transformation, as it raises hopes that we may at last be witnessing the continent’s long-promised economic arrival.
Africa’s rise has been a long time coming. In the 1960s, hopes were high. The remarkable leaders of the independence generation – such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta – received advice from the world’s top economists. The Caribbean-born Nobel laureate Arthur Lewis became Nkrumah’s Chief Economic Adviser.
In India, we read about these leaders’ friendship with our own post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the hope for a new dawn for all emerging economies.
And many emerging economies did indeed take off. In the late 1960s, some East Asian economies surged ahead. Beginning in the early 1980s, China began its decades-long rise. And, from the early 1990s, India’s economy also began to grow robustly, with annual rates reaching the 9% range by 2005.
But Africa remained stagnant, mired in poverty. Ironically, it was the continent’s resource wealth that hampered economic progress, as it fueled conflicts among governments and insurgents eager to control it. The resulting political instability attracted outsiders keen to exploit governments’ weakness.
As the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore put it in his 1936 poem “Ode to Africa,” which played on perceptions about who is “civilized,” the continent fell prey to “civilization’s barbaric greed,” as the colonists “arrived, manacles in hand/Claws sharper by far than any of your wolves.”
Finally, at the turn of the twenty-first century, things began to change for Africa. A few dynamic leaders, democratic stirrings, and emerging regional cooperation led to a decline in poverty and a pickup in growth.
Commodity exporters faced a setback around 2014, when prices plummeted. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it forced countries to diversify their economies and increase production – factors that supported renewed growth.
According to the AfDB report, Africa’s 54 economies grew by 2.2% in 2016, on average, and 3.6% in 2017. In 2018, the AfDB predicts, average growth will accelerate to 4.1%, while the World Bank expects Ghana to grow by 8.3%, Ethiopia by 8.2%, and Senegal by 6.9%, placing these countries among the world’s fastest-growing economies. And these figures are not wishful thinking: in 2016, Ethiopia’s GDP grew by 7.6%.
Of course, serious challenges remain. South Africa, the continent’s strongest economy, is now facing the difficult task of tackling its deep-rooted corruption. Yet, with the African National Congress now apparently determined to replace President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-ridden administration with one led by the party’s new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, there is reason for hope.
Continued next page