Inequality and African Futures

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Sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Simon Freemantle, an Africa analyst with Standard Bank, wrote into “African Arguments” about the binary views the international community seems to favor when it comes to Africa. On “Africa in Transition,” John Campbell responded with an echo of Freemantle’s plea to see Africa as its component parts. The continent is either “rising,” the great economic miracle of the 21st century, or it is “hopeless,” entirely reliant on foreign aid and intervention to stem disease, starvation, and war. As Freemantle explains, not only are both these attitudes incorrect, but furthermore, this analytical framework is dangerously simplistic.

Perhaps most critical is the necessity to craft more inclusive and equitably distributed growth. The gulf in income across Africa is becoming more pronounced, and the socio-economic responsibilities, let alone threats, that this gives rise to must be a central feature of future plans. While North Africa’s “Arab Spring” will not systemically spread south, political systems will have to become more nimble to negotiate the demands of an increasingly youthful, urbanised and connected populace. The risks, both foreseeable and unknown, that accompany these inevitable shifts may not detract from Africa’s allure, but they certainly imply that a more nuanced and critical approach to the continent is necessary.

Inequality within African countries has been on my mind frequently since I arrived in Malawi, and it is something I wonder about frequently when considering development more broadly. Living as an expatriate in Blantyre, the income inequalities are stark and obvious on a daily basis. I have been surprised to find that you can find most things in Malawi–so long as you can pay for it. The great global economic machine gets me balsamic vinegar, reportedly of Modena, in the supermarket here, and yet friends who work at the hospital tell me that the infant ventilators no longer work because the hospital cannot get the right parts from South Africa.

More broadly, however, the question of inequality and development should sit centrally in thinking and talking about Africa’s future. After all, seven out the world’s ten fastest growing economies are located in this part of the world. I was astounded to learn that one of the world’s five most expensive cities is in Africa–it’s Luanda, the capital of Angola. As economic growth continues to sputter in the developed world, Africa’s booming population and growing middle class, resources, and seemingly untapped potential are bound to lure investment and hope. That said, if we look at growth with a development or national security perspective, the question is not gross national economic growth rate, but rather whether the welfare of the average person improves. Unfortunately, the indicators from some of Africa’s current “tigers” do not look good.

Next door, Mozambique is part of the clique of African nations on the move with a +6 percent annual growth rate. The excitement about Mozambique’s bright future, fueled (literally) by coal and gas deposits, spills over even into resource poor Malawi with rumors about new railroads and Brazilian investments. Tete, a coal mining city just a few hours from Blantyre, is awash with Brazilian businessmen and growing at an impressive clip. It is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm about this growth from even where I sit. Every other business owner I talk to is excited about the possibility of infrastructure improvements facilitating trade to Mozambican ports and the Brazilian money facilitating much needed upgrades to aging roads and train lines.

I was sad, then, to see a recent New York Times report on the state of the rural poor in Mozambique. As in Malawi, the average individual in Mozambique fits that description to a tee, eking out a living on a smallholder farm, farming a variety of crops in small quantities, primarily for subsistence but with some for sale to local traders and markets. Investments in extractive industries and their profits do not reach an isolated rural farmer, and in fact, might even harm his interests by degrading the environment, or as in this example in Mozambique, relocating entire villages to make room for coal mines. The result is that the poor stay poor or even get poorer, while the extractives create a new class of wealthy in the country, widening the gulf between the two. And Mozambique’s example is nothing compared to Nigeria, where the inequality is coupling with history to spinning off violence in the northern and Delta regions of the country.

I think Freemantle is right to note that  inequality in Africa will play into the political and security dynamics of the years to come, and perhaps even undermine the continent’s bright economic prospects. There is room for optimism still, as the Times piece points out, seen in the examples of countries like Bostwana and projects like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. For now, at the least, when I hear enthusiasm about skyrocketing growth rates in Africa now, I temper that by asking myself whether trickle-down economics have worked back home.

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Filed under Development, Security Politics

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