Africa rising is a false dawn

Context and background introduction

In 2002 The Economist Magazine [1] declared Africa ‘a basket case’ citing examples like Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of the continent, and how, under Robert Mugabe, the nation was brought to the brink of starvation. Further examples of conflict, corruption and poor governance across the continent were further cited by the Economist in support of its position.

Ten years on The Economist was back with another headline: ‘Africa Rising…the hopeful continent’ [2]… the magazine now stating that the lives of Africans had improved greatly over the preceding decade and that the next ten years were looking even better. To support their new found position The Economist cited examples of increased life expectancy across the continent, the reduced number of deaths due to Malaria and other diseases, the 6% rise in GDP and the highest rate of mobile phone use per capita in the world.

So the debate becomes…if Africa is rising can it continue to do so, or will the many problems it still faces render its rising ‘a false dawn’?

Note: this motion was debated at the 2014 Concern Debates Final where these arguments were developed by St. Flannans College, Ennis (Proposition) and Largy College, Clones, (Opposition).

The Debate

Agree 1: Africa is still on its knees

Far from ‘Rising’ Africa is still a continent very much on its knees. Year after year across a range of Human Development Indexes [3] countries in Africa continue to be among the worst in the world when it comes to rates of malnutrition, HIV and AIDS, levels of education and overall poverty. According to UNICEF over 30,000 children (21 each minute) continue to die each day [4] from easily preventable diseases, because people lack access to proper health facilities and life-saving drugs.

The unfolding Ebola epidemic is just another example of ‘Africa’s’ failed health systems being unable to cope.

This debate is about realism versus aspiration. We would all love to see Africa rise but just because some economies are starting to improve does not mean that human development is taking place across the continent.

Disagree 1: Time to do away with ‘Afro pessimism’

No one is denying that Africa doesn’t have serious problems. But ‘rising’ is a transitive verb: it means Africa is moving up from a lower level to a higher one.

We cannot overlook the fact that of the world’s 10 best performing economies seven of them are in Africa. We cannot overlook the fact, as stated in the MDG 2013 report[5], that since 1990 enrolment rates for children in school has risen from 53% to 77% and the proportion of people who are malnourished has fallen from 32% to 27%…yes still unacceptably high, but evidence nonetheless of a continent moving up a level.

It is time we did away with Afro-pessimism and looked at the Afro-renaissance that is staring us in the face: African countries are economically, culturally and politically on the rise [6].

Agree 2: China in Africa is creating a false dawn

The September 2013 online edition of the magazine The European states that as Africa’s biggest trading partner and creditor, China has become one of Africa’s major economic influences [7]. More than a million Chinese workers have moved to Africa over the last decade devoted to growth and expansion.

From railway projects in Kenya, to the construction of the African Union in Addis Ababa, new schools and hospitals in Angola, and energy extraction operations in Tanzania, China’s burgeoning presence can be felt all across the continent with visible economic impact and the extraordinary opportunities they are bringing with them to enhance employment, technology, and infrastructure.

However, the increase in Chinese influence in Africa [8] has been seen with alarm in many developed countries. Critics, both outside and within Africa, say that there is little or no long-term benefit of the increase in trade to the continent as exports to China comprise mostly primary commodities such as oil and agricultural produce. They also assert that the no strings-attached aid policy [9] pursued by the Chinese authorities and companies leads to a reduction in the pressure on governments to improve a range of social issues such as human rights [10]. Chinese government support to dictators is also seen as being counterproductive to the welfare of the masses and as benefitting Africa’s elite.

Some commentators have gone so far as to accuse the Chinese of pursuing a neocolonialist policy in the continent…and we know how that ended up for Africa, don’t we?

For more background see: China’s Human Rights Footprint in Africa by Timothy Webster in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law (17 May 2013) issue 51, page 626- 663.

Also worth checking out: China still a small player in Africaby Firoze Manji (27 March 2008) Pambazuka News (op-ed by an editor at Pambazuka News).

Disagree 2: China is ‘bringing sunshine’ to Africa

Isn’t it amazing how two people can look at the same article and draw from it two completely different conclusions? As stated in a story in The Express Tribune [11], in countries across the continent such as Ghana, Angola, Uganda and Mozambique, investment in the oil and gas sector is seen by governments and policymakers as one of the most important drivers of growth and development.

According to estimates of the International Energy Agency (IEA), the scale of investment in the continent’s oil and gas supply infrastructure over the period of 2010-2035 will be around $2.1 trillion. These new resources afford sub-Saharan Africa a chance to recover from years of economic misery brought in part by tough conditionalities as part of the IMF-led and World Bank-supported Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) [12].

Chinese investment in the region is not based on extracting monopoly contracts for its firms [13]. Similarly, in terms of development lending, as opposed to conditional lending by multilateral agencies (such as the World Bank) controlled by developed countries, Chinese aid to the region is unconditional and usually spent on infrastructure projects that have a greater impact on people’s lives.

Sinopec, one of the leading Chinese state-owned oil companies, acquired oil concessions in Angola on the back of an oil-backed credit of $2 billion from China’s Eximbank to rebuild the country’s railways, state buildings, hospitals and roads [14]. Far from being seen as neocolonialist, the“Beijing consensus” [15] between African countries and China is viewed as a much more attractive alternative economic development model in the continent, compared to the Washington consensus.

China may indeed be just the ray of sunshine Africa has been hoping for.

Agree 3: Not only a false dawn but going backwards

If we apply the traditional definition of “development” to Africa today we see that, in fact, Africa is not developing. It is far from being another economic powerhouse like east Asia.

For example, a 2011 joint study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation that explored this question [16] found, despite some improvements in a few countries, that the bulk of African countries are either stagnating or moving backwards when it comes to industrialisation. The study found that the share of manufacturing value added (MVA) in Africa’s GDP fell from 12.8% in 2000 to 10.5% in 2008. There has also been a decline in the importance of manufacturing in Africa’s exports, with the share of manufactures in Africa’s total exports having fallen from 43% in 2000 to 39% in 2008. In terms of manufacturing growth, while most have stagnated, 23 African countries had negative MVA per capita growth during the period 1990–2010, and only five countries achieved an MVA per capita growth above 4%.

The report also found that Africa remains marginal in the global manufacturing trade. Its share of global MVA has actually fallen from an already paltry 1.2% in 2000 to 1.1% in 2008. In terms of exports, Africa’s share of global manufacturing exports rose from 1% in 2000 to only 1.3% in 2008. Africa is also losing ground in labour-intensive manufacturing: Its share of low-technology manufacturing activities in MVA fell from 23% in 2000 to 20% in 2008, and the share of low-technology manufacturing exports in Africa’s total manufacturing exports dropped from 25% in 2000 to 18% in 2008.

This sounds like a false dawn to me.

For more see: Challenges for China-Africa relations by David H. Shinn (18th April 2013) International Policy Digest blog

Disagree 3: Technology and education fuelling Africa’s rise

We can’t have a debate about Africa without looking at the role of technology and education.

Today, Africa has more phones than adults [17] because telecommunication is affordable for almost everyone. Thanks to cell-phones—which have morphed into multi-purpose devices—Africans can more easily participate in social and political life, especially if they reside in a remote village. By the end of 2014, it is forecast that there will be more than 635m mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa. This is predicted to rise, to about 930m by late 2019.

The social benefits of mobile connectivity are compounded by an expansion in education. Primary education [18] is no longer a luxury (primary enrolment is almost universal) as was stated in AGREE 1 (above) enrolment rates for children in school has risen from 53% to 77% and the continent will soon be in a position to reap an “education dividend” thanks to the rapid expansion of secondary education.

With an increasingly educated population companies such as IBM, Nokia and Google are criss-crossing the continent in search of business opportunities and human talent.

The combination of technology, education and big business means Africa’s rise is no false dawn.

Agree 4: Reality versus Aspiration…reality wins

In this debate we need to take off our rose coloured glasses and look at life in Africa right now. If we are honest we have to believe that optimism about Africa needs to be taken in fairly small doses, for things are still exceedingly bleak on much of the continent.

47.5% of Africans live on less than two dollars a day (figure taken from Africa Human Development Report 2012 p.163[19] as a percentage populations across the continent living on less than $1.25 a day, based on purchasing power parity (PPP) prices).

Food production per person has slumped since independence in the 1960s. The average lifespan in some countries is under still under 50. Drought and famine persist. The climate is worsening, with deforestation and desertification still on the march.

Some countries praised for their breakneck economic growth, such as Angola and Equatorial Guinea, are oil-sodden kleptocracies. Some that have begun to get economic development right, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, have become politically noxious. Congo still looks barely governable and hideously corrupt. Zimbabwe is a scar on the conscience of the rest of southern Africa. South Africa, which used to be a model for the continent, is tainted with corruption; and within the ruling African National Congress there is talk of nationalising land and mines [20] with new risks to the rights of workers and running up bigger budget deficits to pay for the massively expanded public wage bill[21].

At the start of this debate I said that this is about realism versus aspiration: we all want Africa to rise, we want a continent of peace and prosperity, but that time sadly, has not yet arrived.

Disagree 4: Exchange rose coloured glasses for sun glasses

I reject the notion that we are wearing rose coloured glasses or that we have our heads in the vast African sands…we know the current state of Africa, we know that more than 45% of Africans still live below the poverty line, that many of their governments remain among the most corrupt in the world, and many deadly wars are fought on the “dark continent”.

We know there is a long way to go…just like at dawn the sun has a long way to rise. I’ve argued that the difference with this renaissance compared to the false starts of the past is that investment, business, education and technology are creating a strong foundation that is already having a tangible and lasting impact.

We also need to mention the great African diaspora who have migrated to other parts of the world and who are now getting involved directly or indirectly in the continents rise,through remittances [22] ($32 billion in 2013 alone) and of the thousand who have returned home with increased education and skills [23]. E-mail, cell phones and internet banking make involvement with Africa feasible from afar.

Investment in Africa [24] has become both easier and more attractive to international investors. President Obama in August 2014 convened the largest gathering ever of African government officials in Washington, D.C., in an effort to bolster the U.S. relationship with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

A final point, when looking toward the future of Africa, is that Africa has age on its side, with 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24, many more of them more educated than past generations of young adults. Africa is expected to have the largest global workforce by 2040.

Yes ladies and gentlemen it is time to exchange our rose colored glasses for sun glasses…Africa’s rising is no false dawn.


[1] From breadbasket to basket case by The Economist (July 27, 2002).

[2] Africa Rising: a hopeful continent by The Economist (March 2, 2013).

[3] Human Development Index (HDI) data and FAQ by the United Nations Development Programme

[4] Thousands of children still dying daily from preventable diseases: report by CBC News (Feb 22, 2006).

[5] Millennium Development Goals Report 2013 by United Nations (2013).

[6] Africa Rising: a hopeful continent by The Economist (March 2, 2013).

[7] The New Scramble by Justin McDonnell (Dec 9, 2013) The European

[8] China strengthens Africa ties with €20b in loans by Reuters (July 19, 2012) The Express Tribune

[9] China will offer Africa aid with ‘no political strings attached’, says Xi by Priyanka Boghani and Erin Conway-Smith (March 25, 2013) Global Post

[10] How ‘rogue’ is China’s aid? by Cullen S. Hendrix and Marcus Noland (June 10, 2014) The Washington Post

[11] China’s growing influence in Africa by Tayyab Safdar (August 29, 2012) The Express Tribune

[12] Structural Adjustment – A Major Cause of Poverty by Anup Shah (March 24, 2013) on Global Issues

[13] China commits billions in aid to Africa as part of charm offensive – interactive by Claire Provost and Rich Harris (April 29, 2013) The Guardian

[14] China in Angola: The Pros and Cons of China’s aid structure by Zachery Hylton (May 7, 2014) Humphry Public Affairs Review

[15] Beijing’s coalition of the willing by Stefan Halper (June 15, 2010) Foreign Policy

[16] Fostering Industrial Development in Africa in the New Global Environment report by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (2011)

[17] Internet use on mobile phones in Africa predicted to increase 20-fold by David Smith (June 5, 2014) The Guardian

[18] Global Education Digest 2011 regional profile: Sub-Saharan Africa (2011) by UNESCO

[19] Africa Human Development Report 2012 (2012) by UNDP

[20] Nationalistion in South Africa: a debate that will persist by The Economist (Dec 3, 2011)

[21] Analysis: What would happen to SA if mines were nationalised? by Sipho Hlongwane (June 23, 2011) Daily Maverick

[22] Remittances to Africa: Do the middlemen deserve their cut? by M.V. (April 17, 2014) The Economist

[23] Africa’s Skills Gap: Are the Diaspora the Answer? by Kiran Yoliswa (Dec 5, 2013) African Arguments

[24] Investing in Africa becomes attractive by Hadley Malcolm (Aug 4, 2014) USA Today