Africa: simplification is sometimes a mask for ignorance

Africa's development is imperative given that millions of people yesterday and thousands today cannot live in the same space in the same way
Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana

PHOTO/TANYA BINDRA/UNICEF via AP  -   Un estudiante repasa los apuntes de la pizarra para una clase de preparación para emergencias en una escuela de Baigai, Camerún

There are Afro-optimistic and Afro-pessimistic readings of the African continent.

In the last decade, sub-Saharan Africa has become the most reform-minded region in the world. Today, an entrepreneur can register a company in twenty days in twenty-six of the 48 sub-Saharan economies, whereas ten years ago this was only possible in three countries1. However, being objective, doing business in Africa still has many administrative, functional and institutional barriers. The only reality is that the continent still has a long way to go to live up to its more than 30 million K2. 

Africa, for various reasons, concentrates more than any other geographical space of this size the caricatured representations, which are reflected in Afro-optimistic and Afro-pessimistic readings. Each of these ways of saying and thinking about the continent reflects varied positions, more or less well-intentioned. Thus, recent Afro-optimism, when expressed in certain economic press, is part of a Coué method2 that claims to be self-fulfilling: "If Africa is the continent of tomorrow, it is urgent to invest in it". In contrast, the Afro-pessimistic approach, sometimes part of a Third Worldist reading that interprets all the continent's misfortunes through the long history of its dominated relations with the outside world, tends to conceal both the autonomy of African actors and their share of responsibility. These two approaches have in common that they prevent us from understanding the complexity of African reality. Africa has more caricatured representations than other continents that blur its internal specificities. In Africa, although now with less intensity, three deadly aspects still predominate: Wars, famine, and epidemics.

Have all these African stereotypes evolved?

The dominant representations today oscillate between an Afro-pessimism (defined as the loss of faith in the development of the African continent) of a marginalised and conflict-ridden Africa3, an Afro-optimism of an emerging Africa that can become a new frontier in the world economy, and that Africa (the one I favour) with a greater dose of Afro-realism where some of its economies are producing better sustainable development over time without forgetting their structural deficiencies. An Afro-realism that consists of not falling into the trap of the emerging continent or the doomed continent. Africa is not a country, we cannot hang a label on 54 countries. Let us not simplify, knowing that there are countries that excel and do better and others that repeat at the end of the year. I have already had occasion to mention this in previous analyses.

Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana

"The first call I make from the top of this rostrum is a call for respect for the specificities of each country in its national itinerary. Today, the states (those of the North) do not have the right to demand from the countries of the South a radical and rapid change according to a scheme foreign to their culture, their principles and their own attributes; as if development could only be achieved in the halo of a single model: the Western model".4

Can we speak of a joint dynamic on a continental scale? Does insertion into globalisation lead to a greater division of the continent or does it promote its unity?

  • The first dividing lines concern the African space itself. The Mediterranean openness, the immensity of the Saharawi spaces, the presence of the equatorial forest or the inscription on the coasts of the Indian Ocean can be decisive, without being deterministic, in defining certain areas of the continent.
  • However, it is in human geography that we find the most striking elements of unity and diversity. Regions with very low densities, such as the Saharawi space or equatorial forest areas, are contrasted by the high densities of the states bordering the Gulf of Guinea or the Great Lakes region. The continent as a whole has experienced and continues to experience significant demographic growth that differentiates it from other parts of the world, with a rate of close to 5% per year in sub-Saharan Africa. Demography thus marks the differences in development across the continent.
  • Another important distinction is between urban and rural Africa. Although Africa is the continent with the largest rural population, with 60% of the total, its major metropolises are experiencing real dynamism and very significant population growth, which will probably place them at the top of the global urban hierarchy by 2050.
  • The other characteristic of Africa is that it is made up of a mosaic of peoples or ethnic groups. It is estimated that there are almost 2,000 of them, divided into six main linguistic groups. (see map)
Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana

The place of Africa in the world has changed substantially, it has become stronger, more prominent in the last 20 years5. The continent has been gradually mutating and transforming, although it is still awaited in many respects. Examples such as China, Brazil, Turkey, Morocco and India have contributed to the rise of the continent and its prominence in such substantial aspects as growth, development and investment, as well as geostrategic and other aspects. Africa has always been dependent on the outside world, although efforts to slow this down are important. However, a continent of this magnitude, with the mix of resources it possesses and at the same time the structural deficiencies it suffers from, requires significant cooperation and direct external investment for its development.

Examples of this can be found in many areas such as trade, infrastructure, energy, financing, employment, institutions, etc. For all of this, Africans themselves are needed.

Therefore, it is important to consider, in general terms, the following as priority challenges:

The internal market (the future African continental free trade market and the expectations attached to it). Creating the largest integrated market, favouring the free movement of goods and people in the world). Will Africa be able to produce a real internal market?

As the global economy is in turmoil due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the creation of the vast regional market of the African Free Trade Agreement is a great opportunity to help African countries diversify their exports, accelerate growth and attract foreign direct investment. The scope of the AfCFTA is large. The agreement will reduce tariffs among member countries and cover policy areas such as trade facilitation and services, as well as regu­latory measures such as sanitary standards and technical barriers to trade.It will complement existing subregional economic communities and trade agreements by offering a continent-wide regulatory framework and by regulating policy areas—such as investment and intellectual property rights protection—that have not been covered in most subregional agreements. The AfCFTA would significantly boost African trade, particularly intra-regional trade in manufactures. By 2035, the volume of total exports would increase by almost 29% relative to business as usual. Intercontinental exports would increase by more than 81%, while exports to non-African countries would increase by 19%. This would create new opportunities for African manufacturers and workers. These gains would come, in part, from the reduction of tariffs, which remain stubbornly high in many countries in the region. Today, let us not forget that it is the world as a whole that trades more with Africa than Africa trades with itself.

Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana
AFP/ TONY KARUMBA - Un agricultor recoge bayas de los árboles de café el 2 de agosto de 2019, en la plantación del agricultor keniano Josphat Muchiri
A transforming economy that designs its own development trajectory.

Africa is growing fast, but transforming slowly6.

Africa's ability to rebound in 2021 will depend on the global recovery, the extent of economic destabilisation and the mobilisation of international aid to accompany African economies. In the longer term, although a start has to be made, recovery will require large doses of structural transformation.

Most African societies have enormous difficulties in implementing long-term development strategies: 

  • Ensuring the transformation of income economies into diversified, wealth- and employment-creating production economies.
  • Enabling the creation of competitive advantages in the global marketplace.
  • Generating public resources necessary for the sovereign functions of the state in infrastructure and social spending.

All of this undoubtedly requires, in the African case, the invention of new development models.

Take the example of agriculture: Africa's economy is still based on its agriculture, which employs more than half of the continent's active population, and its importance will depend on its evolution and development. The number of people employed in agriculture continues to grow, not least because of the exponential increase in population. However, its contribution to wealth is less than 15% of African GDP, so that the difference between the sector's importance in employment and its low weight in wealth production is merely a reflection of limited production. However, it is important to recognise the efforts that are being made to modernise it, given that it is a family farm and not yet technologically developed. Agriculture (agricultural production), demography and food security go hand in hand in Africa, not forgetting that the continent imports 14% of its food needs and could import 25% by 2025 (French Development Agency). Which agricultural revolution would be the most appropriate for the continent? Its specific structural characteristics. The structural specificities of the continent - the maintenance of an intense rural demography and the fragility of natural resources - require a progressive transformation such as mechanisation, decentralised irrigation, the development of agro-ecological production systems, etc.  
Increased agricultural production will be about 3 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors.

Economic ties with the rest of the world

The first question to ask is what place does Africa occupy in the global architecture? Africa is not at the centre of the world's economies, nor is it a hinge between the West and the East, as the Middle East might be. Africa has long played, and still plays today, a role as a reservoir of labour and raw materials for the rest of the world's economies. Europeans have treated it as an empty land to be divided up according to their interests. The picture has not changed substantially despite the independence of their countries. Now others have entered the continent, their appearance is different and their ways are different, but in essence their objective is also dictated by their interests as the Europeans did at the time. It is true that Africa has been integrated into the major international organisations of the United Nations and belongs to various multilateral bodies, but its weight in the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO is still relative to that of other nations. That said, it should be noted that the beginning of the 21st century has seen a geopolitical reclassification for the continent, which has been welcomed and desired by other international actors, mainly due to its security, access to natural resources (minerals and hydrocarbons), land, forests, its demographic weight, its growth prospects, higher levels of democracy, etc. All of this makes Africa today, although it still has a long way to go, a growing actor on a global level, and some believe it to be the future of humanity.

Progressive improvement of economic and public governance

A number of indicators have been developed to assess levels of corruption in Africa. Some of these measures, including the Corruption Perceptions Index, World Bank Governance Indicators, the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance and the Afro barometer, have analytical authority as they inform foreign policy, investment decisions, aid allocation and risk analysis of the continent's countries. Corruption is indeed one of the main obstacles to the continent's structural transformation, a phenomenon closely linked to bad governance, and I point out that this evil is not uniquely African. The lack of institutions is recognised as one of the most important determinants of corruption, which is why the various institutions of government are required to make efforts to enforce the implementation of anti-corruption laws and regulations and to promote good governance and good practices. Strengthening anti-corruption principles, including transparency, participation, accountability and integrity. Several conditions are necessary for structural transformation to take place, the application and implementation of good governance principles play a central role, as they determine the reciprocal relations between public sector actors and those in other sectors. Interestingly, several studies have shown that there is a dependence and interrelationship between economic growth and the level of good or bad governance7.

Ranking Indice Mo Ibrahim 2020 (I recommend you read it)
  1. Mauritius 77.2 -0.5.
  2. Cabo Verde 73.1 +0.2.
  3. Seychelles 72.3 +7.8.
  4. Tunisia 70.4 +8.2.
  5. Botswana 66.9 +0.8.
  6. South Africa 65.8 -0.9.
  7. Namibia 65.1 +3.4.
  8. Ghana 64.3 +0.1.
  9. Senegal 63.2 +3.3.
  10. Morocco 61.0 +5.3.
  11. Rwanda 60.5 +3.7
An orthodox treatment of Africa's resources and its significant involvement in the environment.
Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana
AFP/ ISSOUF SANOGO - Mujeres miembros de una cooperativa agrícola de cacao ponen granos de cacao a secar el 17 de abril de 2019 en una granja cerca de Adzope, al sur de Costa de Marfil

Africa is undoubtedly the continent best endowed with natural resources. With an area of approximately 30.3 million square kilometres, including island areas, the continent covers about 6% of the world's land area and one fifth of the world's land surface. Today, it is home to some 1.2 billion people, 17 per cent of the world's population, distributed unevenly across 54 states.

Overall, it has an average population density, with about 35 inhabitants per square kilometre compared to 47% globally. This average is four times lower than that of the European Union, for example. However, average population growth is very high, and the population is expected to double by 2050. Africa's wealth lies in its soil. It possesses 24% of the world's arable land but generates only 9% of the world's agricultural production. When we talk about resources in Africa, we are talking about many guests at the table and some of them with a voracious extraction policy without taking care of the environment, facilitated by the locals themselves who fail to see the consequences for the economy and for nature. Africa's natural resources offer a unique opportunity for human and economic development. However, Africa suffers from the paradox of abundance, namely that abundance does not translate into equivalent levels of prosperity, large-scale development and resource-led industrialisation. And as we have repeated on other occasions, one of the main obstacles preventing African countries from achieving this potential lies in the poor governance of their leaders.

It must be acknowledged, however, that under pressure from the street for greater equity in the distribution of wealth and from prominent demands for greater transparency in the management of rents and contracts, it will become increasingly difficult for governments to justify the economic and social stagnation that is occurring in their countries. And there are some of these who have stepped forward to launch major economic transformation programmes to lift their countries out of the infernal spiral of underdevelopment. Such programmes are based on the pillars of industrialisation, using the natural assets of agriculture and minerals. Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Congo, or Tanzania promote development plans by promoting industrial and agricultural subsidiaries that add value to raw materials.

Sustainable environmental management must start with local actions and grassroots environmental education. The questions are on the table: how to ensure an energy transition in a context of strong instability of fossil fuels and in countries where a large part are net exporters of hydrocarbons? How to get rural and urban populations to behave in a civic manner with regard to waste treatment? And how can we prevent green funds from serving only to feed international environmental conferences?

Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana
PHOTO/AFP - Empleados de la empresa Congo bio vegetal preparan las hojas de yuca en las que se enrolla el "chikwangue" en Kinshasa
And to tackle the educational challenge in depth.

After a decline of 1% in the 1980s and 0.5% in the 1990s, SSA has, since 2000, experienced sustained annual economic growth of around 2.5%, which has been particularly favourable to the development of education. However, this improvement has not been accompanied by a reduction in poverty, which remains a major obstacle to education. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of individuals living on less than USD 1.25 a day fell from 56% to 48%. At the same time, the region stands out from the rest of the world in terms of its demographic evolution, with the world's highest percentage of children between 5 and 14 years old (27%) and an average fertility rate of 4.9 children per woman, which is more than double the world average of 2.4 children. For all these reasons, efforts to achieve education for all in sub-Saharan Africa after 2000 have a mixed record.

It is true that regional progress towards universal primary education has accelerated in relation to the 1990s and the adjusted enrolment rate has risen from 59% to 79% between 1999 and 2012, but many countries are still lagging far behind and goals such as child education and protection, youth and adult learning, adult literacy and education quality have not received the necessary attention. The region still has some 30 million primary school-age children out of school.

For pre-primary education in 2012, enrolments in SSA were two and a half times higher than in 1999, but the average gross enrolment ratio (GER) was still very low (only 20%). The range between countries is, however, very wide. From a GER of less than 2% in Mali to close to 100% in Ghana, Mauritius and Seychelles. Many countries such as South Africa, Angola, Cameroon, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea and Lesotho have invested in it and made significant progress. Teachers are primarily responsible for the quality of education, but the number of teachers, as well as their level of training, is often insufficient. In 2012, half of SSA countries spent around 5% of their GDP on education, but percentages vary by country.

Less than 2% in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, and 10% in Botswana, for example. Aid to basic education in SSA has declined in relative terms due to poor global and national coordination, as it has not been targeted to the countries most in need.

On the other hand, elitist education still persists in some regimes; an education system aimed at training local elites ("only the best go to school") and teachers only teach or preferentially teach the best.


The development of Africa is imperative given that millions of people yesterday and thousands today cannot live in the same space in the same way. I insist that Africa is not uniform and there are real differences between countries. But even within the same country, the coast and the interior have a different development and can be distinguished between jungle, desert, mountain areas, whether fertile or not, populated or not, accessible or enclosed, Christian or Muslim, and so on. Many of its states can still be considered as unstructured or failed8.

Atalayar_Africa Subsahariana

For all these reasons, Africa deserves special attention, as well as an in-depth analysis of Africanness, and not to remain on the surface of the simplistic, as is unfortunately the case in many circles. It is not at all easy to describe Africa - it is a vast continent. We say Africa, but this is a superficial and convenient simplification. And as Ryszard Kapuscinski said in his book Ebony:  "In reality, except as a geographical term, Africa doesn't exist.”

Bibliographical references
  1. A recent example is Togo, a small West African country known for its precious phosphate reserves and sandy beaches, has just made it into the top ten most reform-minded countries in the World Bank Group's Doing Business 2020 report on the ease of doing business. The country has climbed an impressive 30 places in the rankings for making it easier to start a business, obtain construction permits, pay taxes, access credit and register land. These and other improvements have contributed to Togo's ranking of 97th out of 190 countries in the world in terms of the ease of doing business in Togo.
  2. The Coué method consists of suggesting the mind through daily repetition of the following phrase: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better".
  3. This Afro-pessimism could be explained by the accumulation of catastrophes that were falling on Africa, for as the African proverb says: "A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest". In May 2000, The Economist launched its headline: "Hopeless Africa", "Africa has lost the battle for development".
  4. Speech by Mohammed VI, King of Morocco, read from the rostrum of the UN on 25 September 2014.
  5. Africa's growth trajectory over the last 20 years has been 5.5% per annum and the size of the African economy will be 75% larger than that of France by 2050, according to some sources.
  6. Carlos Lopes : Africa in Transformation ed. Catarata and Casa Africa
  7. pag.21 overall governance 
  8. State failure can occur at various levels: at the political level, through its institutions, through the emergence of deep internal crises, by the absence of a separation of powers, by a lack of democracy and freedom of expression. It can appear at low levels of security, due to weak security arrangements, which leads to the inability of state forces to fight the spread of crime and terrorism, and in general, by the inability to control security properly.