Africa’s weaknesses exist in imagination

There is much to be optimistic about the continent with the gains we have achieved in the recent past on most fronts at the political and socio-economic levels.

However, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation notes in its Goalkeepers Data Report for this year, sometimes optimism requires being candid about the hard problems that still need to be solved.


The need for a candid assessment is practical. Speaking of which let me begin with an anecdote. When I referred to the philanthropist couple’s observation at a social gathering the other day, someone shot up with the understandably righteous indignation of a patriot: Why should it be “them” to tell us?


In the same vein, before the social media hordes pick on it as they are wont to troll and thoughtlessly vilify, let me state that, though an avid fan of Bill Gates as a tech buff, I hold no brief for the foundation.


I take it as unquestionable Africa has what it takes, though much has been – and continue to be – said about whether or not the continent needs anybody’s help.

But I also concede Africa is part of the world and not likely to extricate itself from the reality of globalisation made vivid with the spectre of many of our youth risking their lives crossing the Sahel and the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

This is apparent among some of the points the report is making. Being candid, and despite the Gateses’ optimism, they “put it bluntly: decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling.

This is because the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else; more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life. If current trends continue, the number of poor people in the world will stop falling—and could even start to rise.”

When one has the wherewithal such as the Gateses’ can muster to put their considerable wealth to a good cause in seeking to understand a difficult situation and search for an earnest solution, I think it calls for one to pay attention.

The couple describes themselves as big fans of the Sustainable Development Goals, which inspired establishment of the Goalkeepers initiative to accelerate progress toward them.

Thus the Data Report, which cites how progress in poverty eradication around the world has come in waves.

It notes how the first wave centred on China; the second wave centred on India. As a result of successes in Asia, the geography of poverty is changing: Extreme poverty is becoming heavily concentrated in sub-Saharan African countries.

Elsewhere, The Economist observes that the population of sub-Saharan Africa was 180 million in 1950. By 2050 it will be 2.2 billion, a surge that will not necessarily leave people without food but will hamper development.

86 per cent of the extremely poor people in the world are projected to live in south of the Sahara. Therefore, the world’s priority for the next three decades should be a third wave of poverty reduction in Africa.

Thus, as the Goalkeepers Report suggests, “To continue improving the human condition, our task now is to help create opportunities in Africa’s fastest-growing, poorest countries. This means investing in young people. Specifically, it means investing in their health and education, or what economists call ‘human capital.’”

Noting that nearly 60 per cent of Africans are under the age of 25, it explains how human capital, which includes knowledge and skills of the population, is a prerequisite for economic development.

Available data show that differences in health and education levels explain as much as 30 per cent of the variance in per capita GDP between countries.

Consider height, which is a proxy for better health. Studies suggest that every additional centimetre boosts a person’s income by 3.4 per cent. Similarly, every additional year of schooling boosts it by 8 per cent. When these individual effects are added up across a population, they can propel rapid economic growth.

To come back to my incensed friend in the social gathering, his indignation had nothing to do with the philosophical debates on altruism about whether charitable giving achieves its desired effects, or to what extent it need achieve to be declared effective. His was the unbridled African pride and sheer belief in our aptitude to overcome any adversity.

It seems to me the report is in agreement. In the introduction, it mentions the Gateses’ late friend Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician and international health scholar, who they quote as having described people’s different standards of living using the metaphor of how they travel: From sandals to bicycles to cars to airplanes.

They observe that it may be difficult to imagine millions of young people in the world’s most impoverished countries climbing rapidly up the ladder of success described by Rosling. But the weakness is our imagination, not the young people.

It may be a catchy way of putting it, but it points to the collective need to assist our young people tap on their latent abilities.

Twitter: @gituram
The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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