In the financial press, Africa is now hailed as the "go-to" continent.
It seems to be at the cusp of a golden age: its growth and direct foreign investment rates recall those of China at the beginning of the 2000s; South Africa has become one of the booming BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa). The continent also boasts exemplary debt reduction, a middle class the size of India's -- 300 million people, and more than half a billion cell phone users… All the requirements for an emerging economy seem to be there.
Africa also has unique comparative advantages, which means considerable room for growth. It possesses half the unused arable land in the world, and its low yields, less than a metric ton (2,204 pounds) of cereal per hectare (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), mean that production growth could put an end to the food insecurity and malnutrition that currently affects one-third of all Africans.
Contrary to the pessimistic predictions of French agronomist René Dumont in his 1962 book “False Start”, Africa, with its prime geopolitical position and access to raw materials, seems well on its way to becoming the future granary and workshop of the world, with one billion workers and consumers.
However, the appetite for Africa today seems just as misguided as the pessimism of yesterday, when the end of the Cold War and the loss of foreign development aid led to national collapse in some debt-ridden African countries.
Africa's weaknesses have not disappeared: its growth for instance, is not sustainable. The extent of its internal inequalities has led to social tensions that are getting worse now that communication and information networks link together worlds that were previously cut off from each other.
A continent divided
Urban Africans, who are plugged in to the world economy, live on another planet from rural Africans. Two thirds of the population depend on natural resources. The rural population is still growing faster than that in the cities, in spite of rapid urban growth. Half a billion peasants possess almost nothing, and live in insecurity, their economic wellbeing at the mercy of the weather. In Maputo, in 2003, African heads of state agreed to dedicate 10% of their budget to agriculture, but fewer than 10 of the 54 countries have respected this commitment.
The demographic cauldron is boiling away, on a continent where the acceleration of urbanization is more a symptom of agricultural hardships than it is the result of modernization.
During the 19th century, Europe was able to send 50 million emigrants to other countries, but this option is not open to Africa, in spite of its rapidly increasing population. In the cities, whole generations of young people -- two thirds of the African population is younger than 25 -- are out of work, often bitter, and quick to join any revolt. In the countryside, food insecurity endangers millions of people. All these people would be quick to seize economic opportunities… if there were any.
But corruption and favoritism are hindering sustainable development. A major proportion of the abundant aid poured into Africa continues to be diverted into the wrong hands. The creation of natural sanctuaries in the name of ecology marginalizes the local inhabitants. Many members of the elite continue to play the victims, blaming their own management errors on the past or on outside forces. China, yesterday’s savior, is today’s scapegoat, ostracized and accused of pillage.
Africa will never emerge until it can share its financial manna, whatever amount that is, more fairly, and establish real social policies instead of exploiting easy money, whether that comes from charity or from oil.
It is a rich continent filled with poor people, where each new natural disaster reveals more political dysfunction. What use is Africa’s immense wealth to the half of its population that lives below the poverty line, receiving only the smallest crumbs?
*Sylvie Brunel is a professor at the Sorbonne-Paris IV. This article was written for the 27th Les Rendez-Vous de la Mondialisation on "Sub-Saharan Africa's emergence in globalization," organized by the French government's Globalization Analysis Group.