Africa a Beacon of Hope In a Darkened World

Africa Growth
African countries are experiencing rapid growth

AFRICANGLOBE – If you are looking for some cheer in a pretty gloomy world, consider the growing consensus among some of the world’s smartest money that the next big emerging market may be Africa.

Above all, that is great news for Africans: As we have seen across so much of Asia, economic growth has accomplished what decades of well-meaning development efforts failed to do, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. If that happens in Africa, the world will be transformed.

This case for Africa as the world’s new economic tiger is made forcefully in The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution, a data-packed collection of essays to be published at the end of this month and brought together under the aegis of Renaissance Capital, an investment firm with Russian roots and global ambitions.

The consensus view among many students of the global economy is that investment decisions are about choosing, in the words of Mohamed A El-Erian, chief executive of the fund manager Pimco, “the cleanest dirty shirt”: The US faces a fiscal cliff and political gridlock, Europe is tenuously poised between years of painfully slow growth and outright collapse, and even go-go China is slowing. By contrast, in the view of Stephen Jennings, the Renaissance chief executive, Africa is on a tear.

“It is the only region in the world where growth is accelerating,” he said by phone from Moscow.

“If you strip out South Africa, the rest of the region is actually growing very, very quickly.”

Jennings says he believes Africa is following the path to economic development that has been trod in recent decades by countries like Brazil, China, and India — only in Africa the transformation is happening faster.

“The chances are this will be like Asia and this will go on for the next 30 years.

“It is helpful to remember where Asia was in the early 1970s. Then, most of the wars were in Asia, the lowest GDP and life expectancy were in Asia. People thought that was Asia’s lot.”

We hold those same prejudices but more deeply, when it comes to Africa, Jennings says. But, quietly, Africa has been remaking itself. “It is not something that we are predicting. It is something that is happening. You have this very broad-based, Asia-like process of modernisation.”

Jennings, who pointed out that Kenya had halved infant mortality in five years, an improvement it took India 25 years to achieve, predicts that within a generation, Africa’s place in the world will be utterly changed.

By 2050, he believes Nigeria will be the most populous country in the world and the African economy will be bigger than that of the US and Europe combined. Jennings is not alone in predicting an African transformation. Two years ago, McKinsey, the management consulting firm, put a savanna spin on the emerging market cliche in a report entitled Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies.

Foreshadowing The Fastest Billion, this report painted a picture of an Africa whose economic pulse has quickened, with GDP rising about 4.9% per year from 2000 to 2008.

An obvious source of Africa’s new might is the surge in commodity prices, and both reports acknowledge the impact of natural resources. But they also have a shared conviction that domestic factors are at play. The predictable one is improved governance.

Both McKinsey and Renaissance have produced hopeful documents, and that is a very welcome perspective. But it is worth challenging one optimistic assumption.

That is the view that in Africa, economic growth and democracy will go together. Their synonymity is a comfortable belief. But in Africa, as in other emerging markets like China, Russia, and even Turkey, it may not be true. For example, Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that in countries that are cracking down on freedom of the press, like Ethiopia, economic growth deflects attention from growing authoritarianism rather than undermining it.

This is the Putin model, or the Beijing model — forget about ephemeral concepts like free speech and pluralism in exchange for a swiftly increasing GDP. It is not just impoverished domestic electorates that are tempted by this siren song. Western investors and many Western governments find it equally convincing.