Africa Is Rising. Africans Are Not.

Sometimes development is uneven.

This statement, uttered by a businessman working towards a “cashless Nigeria,” led to the realization that my worker-centered philosophy was incompatible with those of the other attendees at the Columbia African Economic Forum gala.

My question, on how “cashless societies” and other business ventures that obviously only benefited those already at the top of the economic food chain, was met with the unsatisfying response of uneven development, and an assertion that we have to start somewhere. Surrounded by would be venture capitalists, financiers, and Wall Street drones, it seemed obvious that Nigeria was already a cashless society; most of its citizens don’t have any.

However, for upwardly mobile cosmopolitan Africans like the gentleman at the gala, Africa is no longer the poverty-stricken panderer of yesteryears, and a hopeful phase of dramatic economic growth signals a new dawn. Articles from renowned publications and projections from the IMF validate the so called “rise.” In addition to the growth of the telecommunication industry, an expanding consumer class, new natural resource reserves, and a surge in foreign direct investment, the new emerging African economy is a triumphant story that many in the Diaspora promulgate and celebrate.

Unsurprisingly, participants at conferences and galas at Harvard and Columbia this year are invited to embrace the momentum, realize that Africa is on the move, and celebrate Africa’s successes.

In doing so however, they are discounting the overwhelming realities of millions of Africans whose livelihood has stagnated or deteriorated in this period of great growth. Accordingly, when asked about the betterment of their countrymen, some simply assert that development is uneven and placate doubters with declarations that Africa is starting somewhere.

Somewhere is the epicenter of extreme poverty and extreme opulence. Evidence from several African countries indicates that this new growth is primarily making rich Africans super-rich Africans, and has further marginalized the majority of the continent’s population.

Angola, a nation whose economy was decimated by three decades of civil war (1975-2002), provides the most glaring example of the widening wealth disparity. While Angola’s capitol, Luanda, advertises Africa’s most expensive penthouse (around $21 million), families of sick loved ones are “on call” and sleep on concrete slabs outside of the General Hospital because the hospital does not provide food or water for its patients. While Luanda’s skyline is ever-changing as towering construction cranes build new offices and condos, many Luandans live in shantytown shacks. While Jacques Marraud des Grottes, head of African exploration and production for Total calls Angola “a land of success, one of the top places for us for growth,” only 9% of Luandans have running water. More Luandans actually had running water during the war than they do now.

Keep in mind that this is a country that more than doubled the size of its economy in one decade; a country with an annual average growth rate of 11%; a country with a budget surplus of 10% of GDP in 2011; a country with economic news that would have most European countries salivating.

Nigeria provides another example. While the last decade was marked by higher economic growth, the unemployment rate actually increased from 5.8% in December 2006 to 23.9% in January 2012. Note that this number measures the percentage of workers actively looking for work, and does not include the rate of the chronically unemployed who have stopped looking, and the underemployed working poor. Tellingly, the poverty rate actually doubled over the last five years and now affects 112 million Nigerians, meaning that 112 million Nigerians are consistently without food, clean water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education.

In the case of Angola and Nigeria, one could argue that both economies are dependent on extractive industries which drive growth rates as they are more capital intensive, but rarely create substantial employment since the industry is less labor intensive. One could also reason that both countries have an endemic corruption problem. These are valid arguments as to why these two specific countries have a widening economic inequality gap, but don’t address the growing evidence that despite a difference in governance style, region, or even the diversity of its economies, pronounced wealth disparity is a Continent-wide phenomenon.

Currently, the top five most unequal countries in the world are in Africa: Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Sierra Leone. Surprisingly, South Africa, the Continent’s most influential and diversified economy, is slightly more unequal today that it was in 1993 shortly after apartheid ended.  Further, three out of the twenty most expensive cities in the world are also on the continent: Luanda (2), N’Djamena (8th), and Libreville (20th)- all of which are more expensive than London.  Estimates indicate that monthly rent payments for a one bedroom apartment in Luanda is over $10,000; a burger over $50; and a yearly gym membership around $10,000.

Considering that Africa is the poorest and most underdeveloped continent on the globe, these numbers provide a startling account of the current state of play: the few who have, have everything, and the majority who don’t, have nothing. This is not to suggest that Africans who have amassed great personal wealth are culpable for the alarming disparity, but this is what uneven development looks like. This is where Africa is. This is what many deem worthy of celebration.

I understand that it is much easier to delight in articles and documentaries about a “rising Africa” than to examine personal class privilege. Economic inequality tasks those who have to consider the legitimacy of their wealth; it is an encompassing problem that we cannot donate, aid, or volunteer away.

Ultimately, African governments hold the solution to a more equitable society. By closing the skills gap, initiating a more progressive corporate tax system, and providing subsidies for public services that protect the bottom percentile, many countries can begin to turn the tide.  However, we must all first admit that most Africans are not rising with Africa, and that wealth disparity is a major obstacle to overall development. 

Not doing so, and choosing to remain intentionally oblivious to the hardships of the majority of Africans who are losers in this new economic landscape is inane,  and just downright cruel.

Jumoke is the co-founder of compareafrique.com.

Comments

22 Responses to “Africa Is Rising. Africans Are Not.”
  1. Shreen says:

    It’s critical to highlight and unpack the euphemisms that get promulgated in and around “uneven development.” I’ve noticed the same discourse with India and the BRIC countries, although Indian development is creating a new middle class- there are slum cities without electricity and access to water in the shadows of luxury high rises. Uneven development isolates millions, as you write “Somewhere is the epicenter of extreme poverty and extreme opulence.” Wonderful read Jumoke.

  2. Marissa says:

    I presently live in Dakar, where today we endured two district-wide blackouts, and where a $2 taxi ride is considered a luxury, because my mom-in-law’s house girl makes about $40 a month (it’s burdensome for my mom-in-law to pay this much, mind you), and I just paid my tailor $24 to make me two evening gowns (he thought I was too generous, because he ordinarily only gets about $9 per dress).

    Tomorrow, if I go to the mall on the more affluent side of town, I will see Senegalese people working, and French/Lebanese/Moroccan/Belgian/American people shopping. Many of them will pay the equivalent of $70 just to have their nails done (the same service in NYC runs you $35-45), before paying around $100 for brunch at the popular seaside hotel next door.

    Maybe Africa is rising. In cost, yes, for many middle or working-class or poor Africans. Africa arose as an awesome option for me, an American on a fellowship…Dakar is crazy expensive, but my luxury apartment is still “only” around $370 a month (it’s considered luxury because it’s not open-air, and features a shower/running water). I can afford to indulge in tiny luxuries here, and contribute to the rising cost of living for people, and contribute to the rising profits made by Africa’s upper-crust. But most people here–even educated, working people will struggle to pay even $100 a month in rent, so if Africa is rising, it really is hard for me to understand what a rising Africa really means.

  3. LaBra says:

    Corruption is the archenemy of economic development. As long as this barrier remains, foreign investment will produce uneven development and disclaimers will accompany any rising GDP.

    Foreign investment in Africa has occurred primarily in non-labor intensive sectors. As you point out, this has grown several African economies without creating many jobs. When I think of how much oil Nigeria produces, it is unfortunate that the Nigerian oil production industry is not state owned, so that any revenues produced from oil exports could pay for public services and infrastructure and income subsidies for its citizens. However, I doubt that this would ever work under the current model of corruption.

    When the style of foreign investment is just another form of colonialism (capalonialism, obviously making this up)- in which foreign companies exploit the resources of Africa (without creating domestic jobs) and share the resulting prosperity with a few corrupt African individuals, but mainly send profits to investors that do not live in Africa- there is no opportunity for the truly destitute Africans to experience upward mobility. Not all foreign investment is created equal, especially when there is a government rife with corruption signing the contract.

    • CAPALONIALISM: cool term.

      Just to add a bit of historical perspective here. Slavery & Colonialism were the result of what is called “mercantile capitalism”. Ever heard of the “British East India Company” or the “British South Africa Company”? Barclays Bank financed many slave ships and Lloyds of London insured them. Developed countries need raw materials, and they go to less developed countries to get it. They will help a few there get rich – just like they paid Africans to sell them African slaves. Most West African societies were decimated by the loss of people between 16-35, but a few people did get rich. This pattern changes form every generation, but the substance continues, because it is part of “business” and folks in my profession will always find a way to make money for their clients.

  4. Bita says:

    Great post but isn’t that the result of growth in the capitalist system? It was top to bottom growth here in the US and Europe during the industrial revolution. Unless we come up with a different system for growth we will always improve the lives of a few at the beginning and then wait for the wealth to trickle down in the form of a middle class. That’s what happened in India. Maybe if governments weren’t in bed with big business across the world, we’d be able to redistribute wealth more equally.

    • I agree. What you are seeing is not any different from Europe or America a few hundred years ago. Actually, African countries are right on track (judging from date of “independence”). I can’t imagine that the United States was not corrupt in 1830 – and distribution of wealth was far more unequal, with voting restricted to men who owned land.

      The optimist in me wants to say this is “normal”. If the wealthy class in Africa are smart, they will evolve as the ones in America and Europe. At best, there will be the “Carnegies” that create endowments for schools, libraries, etc. At a minimum, the wealthy will realize how much more money they can make by creating a better society. Imagine how much more BILLIONS Nigerian millionaires will make if they (a) built toll roads and bridges or (b) developed natural gas pipelines and an electricity infrastructure to use it.

      The pessimist in me however, doesn’t see any of this happening any time soon….or ever. I wonder if that is wrong of me. I do agree with another comment that the rhetoric often comes from the children of rich Africans, who are glad that they don’t have to get on a plane to go to a Gucci store.

  5. RB says:

    Great read, Jumoke! Your article was so reminiscent of my time in Mumbai, and I have been pondering on the ideas of development and globalization since my return. While there are positive affects to be seen through modernization and globalization, from what I observed in Mumbai, globalization seems to only concentrate power and wealth within a select group of people, nations, and corporations, while marginalizing the others. Globalization seems to be widening the gaps between the haves and have nots on a global scale. Also, countries are now competing to create attractive conditions for resources, and that often means ignoring the environmental concerns or social regulation. In turn, globalization is now eroding what communities in developing countries, need to survive: clean air, safe water, etc.

  6. Joe says:

    Thank you for very interesting insights, Jumoke! I talked with people in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam recently, and indeed they are wondering how the “growth in Africa” is reflected in their own pocket… at the same time, it’s quite impressive to see how these cities are growing, not least in height, because of many new sky scrapers. The problem is certainly that only a few profit, while the huge majority remains in poverty. And while all the talk of a rising Africa might be “cruel”, but nonetheless it ultimately changes the perception of the continent. Now, Africa is also associated as a continent of economic opportunity and growth. In the long run, this changing external perception will benefit the majority on the continent, although this won’t be tangible right away.

  7. Love says:

    This article is excellent and highlights two topics that has been on my mind for a while now. Every time I read an article about Africa’s new-found growth, I always have to remind myself that the “Africa rising rhetoric” has been mostly put forth, and supported by very well educated and/affluent Africans such as the kind who frequent many of these development conferences. To them, Africa is indeed rising as they are the ones who have access and the network to reap the benefits of this “rising Africa”. As rightfully noted in this article, to the majority of Africans however, Africa’s growth trajectory is stagnant at best. Also, If this economic inequality is left unchecked, it will inevitably lead to a rise in crime which many cities like Accra and Dakar -which used to have relatively low rates of crime- are now beginning to see an increase in.

  8. Izuba says:

    Excellent article! This is certainly the reality for most; however, the article would be better balanced if you highlighted some examples that actually represent Africans rising. Rwanda is one such example where the GDP growth is directly reflected in the improvement of public infrastructure and services. I’ve witnessed the changes in Rwanda and have seen the lives of the average rural population steadily improve due to access to healthcare, education, electricity, water and new roads. Yes, Africans as a whole are not rising at the same rate as their economies, but some countries have tried and are slowly making progress. Let’s give credit where it’s due.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Until we realize that corruption involved collaboration between donors and bureaucrats no sound solution can be found. Most campaign against corruption involves beating up on bureaucrats in recipient countries. But diners need to be part of the solution as well.

    Geoffrey

  10. Ro. says:

    Good article Jumoke,

    It’s frightening to consider that this uneven trend is what passes for progress. ForAt the heart of the problem here in Africa are the misplaced priorities of governments on the continent. Investing in things like education, health care, basic infrastructure, ensure a more even spread of wealth. My guess is that returns on such investments do not occur as quickly or in the great volumes we see with extractive industries and the telecoms industry. The challenge is to balance priorities. This uneven development should be alarming because it is likely to persist well into the future.

  11. Ramadhani Msoma says:

    The piece is well written and the same is happening in Tanzania we are told we are among top 10 fastest growing economies in world but that is absolutely on the paper.In the ground the situation is bad and some of the areas the lives of poor people have been reduced to penury.We can not rely on extractive industries only for real growth we have to diversify our economies and have in place agro processing industries to help our agriculture sector which employ majority of our people.Otherwise the growth percentage we are hearing from IMF, World bank ad our governments is just another burden to be carried by poor Africans.The growth in Africa should mean taking millions of Africa out of poverty and not otherwise!!

  12. Ricky says:

    Jumoke, you and i share many of the same sentiments as regards this claim of “africa rising”. However, in your crtiticisms of rising unemployment I think you have not given enough credence to the impact of rural-urban migration on African towns and cities. In fact, you don’y mention it at all. Post independence population growth in African urban centres has been far from organic and I can’t think of any capital city that sustained this influx of rural and small-town folk looking for opportunities. For lack of a better term, it’s natural for cities to come close to or surpass breaking point before they start growing to cater for their new, bigger populations with a multitude of demands. You see it from Tripoli to Cape Town and everywhere in-between.

    • Jumoke says:

      Thanks for your insight Ricky! Your comment gives me the idea to write about migration and labor. I’ve been thinking about your suggestions. I’ll respond soon with another article that expands on the issue!

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