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Research suggests that the boom benefits only a narrow elite while leaving the poor and unemployed behind.
The idea that Africans have never had it so good is rapidly becoming economic orthodoxy. Foreign investors, media and politicians from William Hague to Jacob Zuma have championed a narrative usually summed up in two words: “Africa rising”.
The majority of Africans themselves, however, feel that the picture is far less rosy, complaining that the continent’s much vaunted economic growth is failing to trickle down to their daily lives, according to the biggest survey of its kind.
“After a decade of growth in Africa, little change in poverty at the grassroots,” is the title of a report by the Afrobarometer research project, which questioned 51,605 respondents in 34 countries from October 2011 to June this year.
Roughly one in five Africans told researchers they still often lack food, clean water or medical care, while about half experience at least occasional shortages. More than two in five regularly lack a cash income that might enable them to meet basic needs, and three-quarters report going without money at least once in the past year.
In 16 countries where data is available over the past decade, the average experience of what researchers term “lived poverty” has hardly changed, the report adds.
“While we do see reductions in five countries (Cape Verde, Ghana,Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe), we also find increases in lived poverty in five others (Botswana, Mali, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania),” it states.
“Overall, then, despite high reported growth rates, lived poverty at the grassroots remains little changed. This suggests either that growth is occurring, but that its effects are not trickling down to the poorest citizens (in fact, income inequality may be worsening), or alternatively, that actual growth rates may not match up to those being reported.”
The poll also found that 56% of Africans feel their governments are doing a bad job of managing the economy and even higher numbers give them low ratings for improving the living standards of the poor (69%), creating jobs (71%) and narrowing income gaps (76%).
The findings come despite Africa’s economies having grown by an average of 4.8% between 2002 and 2011, making it the new darling of the investment community and earning headlines such as “the hopeful continent” from the Economist magazine.
Critics have warned that the boom is benefiting only a narrow elite while leaving the poor and jobless behind, exacerbating inequality and potentially sowing seeds of unrest. The wave of “Afro-optimism” should be qualified, they argue.
Carolyn Logan, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University and deputy director of the research project, said: “The survey results show there is a disconnect between reported growth and the persistence – in both frequency and severity – of poverty among ordinary citizens. It’s evident that African governments need to focus as much attention on poverty reduction efforts as they are on growing their economies.”
The findings show significant correlations between access to electrical grids, piped water and other basic services in communities and lower levels of poverty. Higher levels of formal education also correlate with sharply lower experiences of deprivation.
People in Burundi, Guinea, Niger, Senegal and Togo suffered the highest average levels of poverty, while residents of Algeria and Mauritius experienced the lowest. Five of the seven countries with the highest levels of nutritional deprivation – Burundi, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Niger – are all emerging from recent conflicts.
The report triggered in debate in South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy but one of five found to have increasing levels of poverty over the past decade. Kenneth Mubu, shadow economic minister for the opposition Democratic Alliance, described it as a “harsh reality check for our government” and called for a parliamentary debate.
Economists insist, however, that the overall trends remain positive. Professor Mthuli Ncube, chief economist of the African Development Bank, said that the “Africa rising” narrative is intact, adding: “Even in the face of headwinds, we still see the same drivers in place, if not even stronger, be they political progress in terms of governance and macroeconomic stability or burgeoning domestic demand from the middle class. Even China growing at 7% sustainably is good enough to keep the commodity trend in the right direction for Africa.”
But it is time for governments and business to manage Africa’s natural resources windfall better, he added. “Some of it has been jobless growth, frankly, and the idea is now that it must create jobs. The good thing is that the leadership – whether political or economic – is recognising that the quality of growth has to be improved. We see the opportunity with natural resources as one way to do it, so structural transformation is critical for the attainment of inclusive growth. I think over the next 10 to 15 years we’ll see progress in this direction.”
Partners in the Afrobarometer project include the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin, the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa and the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University in the United State.
– The Guardian