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How Much Progress in Africa?

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How Much Progress in Africa?

Recent public debates have refocused public attention on Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development over the past few decades. Many pundits are driving this with rhetoric suggesting there has been a long-term decline in living standards throughout Africa. But the facts show that this is simply not the case. Even though Africa remains the world’s poorest region facing the most persistent development challenges – and Africans have had to bear many of the greatest costs of the global economic downturn – the region has experienced considerable progress in recent years.

Among the headline development indicators, aggregate measures of African income poverty have shown the most modest long-term progress. Researchers Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion have produced the best technical estimates of poverty trends back to 1981. These show that the percentage of people in Sub-Saharan Africa living under $2/day measure of poverty dropped only slightly from 74% in 1981 to 73% in 2005, the most recent year with available data. The same research shows that the percentage of Africans living in “extreme poverty,” measured as less than of $1.25/day, has been similarly constant, dropping from 53% in 1981 to 51% in 2005.

But those longer time trends obscure a more recent upturn in progress. After the economic tumult of the 1980s and early 1990s, African poverty reduction and economic growth started to make a comeback over the past decade. Between 1999 and 2005, the share of Africans living in extreme poverty dropped 7%, from 58% to 51%. This was a faster rate of progress than South Asia’s over the same period. And prior to the current crisis, a large number of African countries were averaging more than 5% annual real GDP growth in recent years. These countries have pushed fiscal balances into surplus, bolstered reserves, and kept inflation rates in the single digits.

Many aggregate social indicators have also seen tremendous progress over the past few decades. For example:

  • Africa’s under-5 child mortality rates declined from 229 per 1,000 births in 1970 to 146 in 2007.
  • Measles deaths dropped by 90% in just six years, from roughly 396,000 per year in 2000 to 36,000 per year in 2006.
  • AIDS treatment has expanded from reaching roughly 10,000 people in 2001 to more than 2 million in 2008.
  • Primary school net enrolments jumped from 53% to 70% between 1991 and 2006.
  • Adult literacy increased from approximately 27% in 1970 to 62% in 2007.

To be sure, aggregate indicators Africa do not capture the diversity of experiences across 49 countries in the region. While western media outlets tend to persist in relaying stories of political and military conflict around Africa, they have overlooked many countries’ remarkable success, for example:

  • After nearly 40% of Malawi’s population required emergency food aid in 2005 as result of crop failure, the country launched a national input subsidy program to support its smallholder farmers. The program reaches 2 million households and has helped boost cereal production from an average of 0.7 tons per hectare (t/ha) in 2005 to 1.5 t/ha in 2006 and 2.0 t/ha in 2007. The average GDP growth rate has correspondingly jumped to more than 8 percent in recent years.
  • Rwanda experienced a 64% drop in malaria incidence and 66% decline in deaths from malaria within one year of distributing bed nets and making available modern malaria medicine available. In Ethiopia, the same basic interventions resulted in a 60% reduction in incidence and 51% decline in deaths between 2005 and 2007.
  • Mozambique’s annual GDP per capita growth rate has averaged nearly 5% over the 15 years since the end of its devastating civil war, with sustained external support helping the country to double economic output per person over the period.

There are just a few of the many country-level successes around Africa, both in economic progress and in social measures of access to health, education, water. While the challenges remain considerable and the level of poverty in much of the region remains extraordinary, this needs to be understood in light of the tremendous progress that so many communities and countries have shown to be possible.

Many of the success stories share attributes of strong local leadership and supportive international partnership. This is why it is so important to debunk the claims of African regress and to understand how misguided it is when people call for the international community to disengage from supporting Africa. There is much momentum underway, led by countless talented and entrepreneurial Africans across the region. Their efforts need continued support through transparent, outcome-driven policies and programs that will help scale-up success as quickly and broadly as possible. And if recent global events have taught us nothing else, it is the interconnected fates of all communities around the world. It is time to understand this, and to start acting accordingly.

John W McArthur is the CEO of Millennium Promise (www.millenniumpromise.org) and can be followed on Twitter.com as “johnmca”.


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  1. KonstantinMiller July 6, 2009

    I have been looking looking around for this kind of information. Will you post some more in future? I’ll be grateful if you will.

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