14 January 2013

So, is Africa Rising or Not?

The discussion over a rising Africa is not all that new, but it picked up some steam thanks to cover stories from Time Magazine and The Economist. It is so popular that Nick Kristof wrote about it and Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff are teaching a course on the subject (though it is focused on evaluating the idea rather than championing it). Despite the trend, everyone is not necessarily in agreement that Africa is rising in the first place.

"All in all, though, Africa is becoming more democratic, more technocratic and more market-friendly. Yet Americans are largely oblivious to the idea of Africa as a success story," wrote Kristof in June. The reason that people are unaware of Africa's rise, argues Kristof, is in some part due to journalists tendency to report on disasters.

Time Magazine wrote put the phrase "Africa Rising" on its cover 14 years earlier and it also appeared as the title of an article by the magazine in 2001. The correspondents traveled to Mozambique, Eritrea, Mali and Ghana to tell of examples of improvements across the continent. A decade later, Mali is in the midst of a civil war.

Boosters of a rising Africa point to steady growth as measured by GDP. However, this may be misplaced. PhD candidate Rick Rowden wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this month that the idea of Africa rising was a myth. Malawi, for example, has experienced strong growth as measured by GDP, but it does not mean it's economy is transforming, argues Rowden.

"Malawi may have earned higher export earnings for tea, tobacco, and coffee on world markets and increased exports, but it is still largely a primary agricultural economy with little movement towards the increased manufacturing or labor-intensive job creation that are needed for Africa to "rise,"" he writes.

A key component to development is industrialization, says Rowden. A 2011 U.N. report and a report from the African Development Bank show that many African countries are struggling to industrialize. To Rowden, that lack of progress gives serious concern for future development of African countries and leads to questions about the claims that the continent is rising.

Charles Robertson and Michael Moran pushed back against Rowden a few days later in Foreign Policy. They agreed on the importance of industrialization, but dissented from Rowden's pessimism. Countries must first focus on their primary sectors before moving to industrialization, say Robertson and Moran citing World Bank economist Justin Lin.

The rising cost labor in China, a more education population and business-friendly governments together show that the pace of industrialization will speed up in sub-Saharan Africa, they conclude. One example provided is Kenya, a country with a distinct government vision for improving its industrial capacity. "Kenya is not unique -- many governments now have 10-20 year development plans -- and we agree that nothing in them guarantees they will be effectively implemented, or implemented at all," they warn.

Both articles presented ideas about the claim that Africa is rising, but neither put an end to the conversation. In fact, Rowden differed with the analysis explaining why he felt Robertson and Moran were wrong in the comments section of the article. Africa rising is a story that returns in cycles and is bound to return into mainstream conversation after the current debate dies down.