While I am an optimist with regard to global poverty alleviation, my optimism is sorely tested when it comes to my beloved birth continent, Africa.
Because Africa is huge, diverse, and complicated, it is difficult to make sense of what is going on in the continent, how the continent interacts with the rest of the world, and how America might best pursue its national interests and the global common good in its relations with Africa.
The recently published report from the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Foresight Africa: Top Priorities for the Continent 2016, serves as a both a filter (selecting what from the mass of data is helpful to the sensemaking enterprise) and a key (unlocking insights by offering interpretations of the filtered data) to this complexity.
Foresight Africa is carefully researched, clearly written, and helpfully illustrated. Marked by clear-eyed honesty and modest optimism, this report provides valuable points of reference as we consider the relationship between America and Africa after Obama. It identifies key challenges in six areas that require serious action.
Challenge #1: Africa’s current economic growth rate is far too low.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP per capita (at constant 2005 prices) was $1,036.10 in 2014. At the 1.4% growth rate estimated for 2015, it would take Africa 50 years to double GDP per capita.
Challenge #2: African industrial development has been stalled since the 1970s.
Only one in five workers in Africa has a job in the wage economy. Historically, the only way to generate such jobs on a significant scale in developing countries has been by means of export-oriented manufacturing. But Africa has made little headway in growing export-oriented industries in the past four decades.
Challenge #3: The lives of most Africans are marred by poverty, hunger, poor education, ill health, and violence.
Although the poverty rate in Africa has dropped in recent years, rapid population growth means that the number of people suffering poverty keeps growing: from 280 million in 1990 to an estimated 330 million in 2012. Of the 20 countries in the world with the worst food and nutrition security, 19 are in Africa. More than two out of five African adults cannot read or write. Health outcomes are worse in Africa than anywhere else in the world, even though life expectancy at birth has risen and chronic child malnutrition has declined since the mid-1990s. Tolerance of domestic violence is twice as high as in the rest of the developing world. Incidents of violence against civilians are on the rise. While this litany of suffering is true throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with regard to all these measures life is particularly harsh for people living in the roughly 34% of Africa where states have collapsed to the point of irrelevance.
Challenge #4: Every year more Africans live in urban slums.
About 400 million Africans lived in cities in 2010, and 60% of those people lived in slums with no access to basic services. By 2050 that number is expected to grow to 1.26 billion. By 2035 half of all Africans will probably live in cities, with continuing urbanization expected thereafter.
Challenge #5: Corruption, corruption, corruption.
Perhaps the most upsetting sentence for me in Foresight Africa reads, “No reasonably democratic government in Africa has seen a rupture from corrupt and clientelistic modes of resource distribution.”
Challenge #6: Imminent changes to the architecture of global trade will disadvantage African countries.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—neither of which includes sub-Saharan African countries—will offset many of the trade benefits African countries currently enjoy under America’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
The primary responsibility for addressing these challenges rests with Africans. African businesspeople will have to create the industries that will generate the jobs African workers need. African teachers will have to provide the education that African children need to be economically productive and politically effective. African nurses and doctors will have to do the hard work of raising the quality of health care Africans need. African parents will have to give their children the love, security, and discipline they need to grow into responsible and courageous adults. African political leaders will have to make the changes that will reduce corruption and generate the laws, policies, and practices needed to enable and encourage these preceding non-political efforts. And African citizens will have to create the popular pressure that pushes African governments towards these necessary changes.
But America can help.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies
Photo Credit: A young boy sits over an open sewer in the Kibera Slum, Nairobi (by Trocaire, via Wikimedia Commons)