Africa starts to emerge

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Fri, 18 Sep 2015 Source: Noah Smith

I come bearing good news about Africa. The continent is finally starting to emerge.

Pessimism about Africa is so pervasive that people don't even have to say it out loud -- it's just assumed. When development economists such as Paul Collier write books with titles like "The Bottom Billion," they remember to mention a handful of countries in Central Asia, but you know the book will be almost entirely about Africa. As for the reason for Africa's benighted situation, explanations range from the legacy of exploitative colonialism to the resource curse to endemic war to the health effects of malaria. Often, in discussions about Africa, there is an undercurrent of racism.

But whatever the reasons for Africa's past woes, the facts are undeniable. Africa's situation is changing fast, and for the better.

The best collection of encouraging Africa trends comes courtesy of Max Roser, an Oxford economist whose monumental Web project, Our World In Data, has a page devoted to Africa. Roser is a whiz with candy-colored maps, using side-by-side contrasts to show how the Africa of recent decades is barely recognizable as the dysfunctional continent of the 1980s and 1990s. I will take the liberty of showing a few of those maps here -- these and many more can be found on Roser's page, along with links to download the data.

The most striking positive trend in Africa is the rise in education. Here is Roser's map of how a whole continent has started to go to school:

Despite any pessimistic stories you have heard about African education, schooling is working. Here is a comparison of literacy rates across the generations:

The change is phenomenal. In two generations, literacy rates have soared, doubling in many countries. Of course, education may be only part of the story -- technologies such as mobile phones have become ubiquitous, requiring Africans to read in order to conduct business and communicate.

Along with the improvement in education has come dramatic growth in African economies. Gross domestic product has soared and poverty has plunged on the continent since the mid-1990s. As a result, child mortality has fallen substantially throughout the continent. And the horrific African famines you used to see on TV are becoming a thing of the past: despite population growth, per capita food supply has increased drastically.

Even the continent's famously dysfunctional politics are improving, with democracy slowly replacing autocracy as the standard form of government.

It's important to realize that all these trends support and sustain each other. Good government keeps economic growth going. Growth makes it easier and more rewarding to educate kids. Educated people provide a productive labor force to spur investment, and educated people sustain democratic, inclusive institutions.

Many of Africa's economies are based on natural resources. This saddles the continent with the "resource curse," in which governments focus on extracting raw materials from the land instead of cultivating a productive populace. It also keeps Africa out of the global manufacturing chains that typically propel developing countries into the ranks of the rich. Africa's commodity dependence also means that it will suffer from China's slowdown, which has already forced down the prices of many staples.

But we shouldn't conclude that Africa's sensational improvement is purely a product of the 2000s commodities boom. Improving literacy and education might in some cases be paid for with money from raw materials exports, but the human capital improvements that they represent give Africa the opportunity to branch out into more productive industries.

Already, African manufacturing is expanding. Fifteen percent of China's direct investment in Africa goes to factories. Yes, that's right -- China, workshop of the world, is building industrial plants in low-cost Africa. Though it still lags behind other continents, Africa is slowly increasing its share of global investment. Literacy, as with most manufacturing success stories, is what makes this shift possible.

Now, obviously, it's still early days. Africa isn't yet in full flight, just showing signs of preparing itself for takeoff. But the story of Africa as a perpetual, irredeemable basket case is looking increasingly dated.

There is one big danger, however, that could threaten to derail Africa's nascent success story -- overpopulation. Though the threat of overpopulation has long ended in most of the world's regions, Africa alone retains high fertility rates. This is leading to increased urbanization, which is good for growth. Cities are so good for productivity that I suspect that Africa's low population density -- historically much lower than other regions -- was one reason it became a development laggard. But if it gets out of hand, Africa's exploding population will go from being an asset to being a liability.

But unless overpopulation threatens, Africa's future looks bright. Perpetual Africa naysayers should wake up to this new reality.

Columnist: Noah Smith