Can you hear me now? Swaziland, August 2010 (Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)
Talk to experts, academics, or businesspeople about the economies of sub-Saharan Africa and you are likely to hear one of two narratives. The first is optimistic: Africa’s moment is just around the corner, or has already arrived. Reasons for hope abound. Despite the global economic crisis, the region’s GDP has grown rapidly, averaging almost five percent a year since 2000, and is expected to rise even faster in the years ahead. Many countries, not just the resource-rich ones, have participated in the boom: indeed, 20 states in sub-Saharan Africa that do not produce oil managed average GDP growth rates of four percent or higher between 1998 and 2008. Meanwhile, the region has begun attracting serious amounts of private capital; at $50 billion a year, such flows now exceed foreign aid.
At the same time, poverty is declining. Since 1996, the average poverty rate in sub-Saharan African countries has fallen by about one percentage point a year, and between 2005 and 2008, the portion of Africans in the region living on less than $1.25 a day fell for the first time, from 52 percent to 48 percent. If the region’s stable countries continue growing at the average rates they have enjoyed for the last decade, most of them will reach a per capita gross national income of $1,000 by 2025, which the World Bank classifies as “middle income.” The region has also made great strides in education and health care. Between 2000 and 2008, secondary school enrollment increased by nearly 50 percent, and over the past decade, life expectancy has increased by about ten percent.
The second narrative is more pessimistic. It casts doubt on the durability of Africa’s growth and notes the depressing persistence of its economic troubles. Like the first view, this one is also justified by compelling evidence. For one thing, Africa’s recent growth has largely followed rising commodity prices, and commodities make up the overwhelming share of its exports -- never a stable prospect. Indeed, the pessimists argue that