What changes have occurred among sub-Saharan African nations since the mid-1990s? This essay highlights 17 African countries that have achieved dramatic improvements in economic growth, poverty reduction and political accountability. Another six ‘threshold’ countries have experienced promising change. The turnaround was ignited by a combination of economic reform and political change. While the countries of ’emerging Africa’ face challenges and risks, they seem likely to continue their progress.
For too long, sub-Saharan Africa has been treated as a single entity that is mired in failure. Sub-Saharan African countries differ significantly in their history, economic potential, geography, culture and political systems. One of the clearest patterns in the region since the mid-1990s has been economic and political divergence. Seventeen African countries have achieved dramatic improvements in economic growth, poverty reduction and political accountability: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Ghana, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, the Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Six other countries have experienced promising change: Benin, Liberia, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
A combination of five key factors suggests that these countries’ initial success can be sustained and expanded. These factors are:
- The rise of more democratic and accountable governments: Democracy has meant not merely elections, but greater adherence to basic political and civil rights, more freedom of the press, and stronger political institutions. In the 17 emerging countries, the shift toward democracy has accompanied broader improvements in governance, such as reduced corruption.
- The implementation of better economic policies: Economic reforms initially had little effect on economic growth, but as political changes stabilised, economies began to respond.
- The end of the decades-long debt crisis and major changes in Africa’s relationship with the international community: Country-led poverty-reduction strategies have replaced the heavy conditionality of IMF and World Bank programmes.
- The spread of new technologies that promote political accountability and create fresh business opportunities: Cell phones are becoming ubiquitous across Africa and internet access is growing quickly.
- The emergence of a new generation of policymakers, activists, and business leaders: This new generation is smart, energetic and entrepreneurial, with a global outlook.
Economic growth, poverty reduction, democracy, and improved governance may be connected to one another in a virtuous circle. In most cases, economic reforms started first, followed closely by an expansion of political freedoms. These together led to faster economic growth and improved governance. The strengthening of democracy probably helped improve governance, but improvements in the quality of governance almost certainly have helped to sustain democracy. Similarly, the improvements in democracy and governance have helped to establish and sustain economic policies that have accelerated growth, making easier the delivery of tangible benefits to citizens.
This progress is fragile: slipping back into stagnation or worse remains a possibility. As the emerging countries become integrated into the global economy, they must handle volatility beyond their control. Some face the risk of internal political instability and many must continue to address the ravages of HIV/AIDS. The future for these countries is uncertain but promising.
See also: A four-page brief based on the author’s book ‘Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way’.