Why Africa Will Rule the 21st Century

By Versi, Anver | African Business, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Why Africa Will Rule the 21st Century


Versi, Anver, African Business


According to the authors of a new book, The Fastest Billion--the story behind Africa's Economic Revolution, Africa's current sustained growth level is set to not only continue but rise over the next four decades so that, come 2050, the continent's GDP will equal the combined GDPs of the US and the EU at current prices. There is a possibility that Africa's growth could outstrip that of Asia over this time span. Some have described this scenario as over-optimistic and an exercise in wishful thinking. But the authors of the book put forward sound arguments based on analyses of trends going back centuries to support their thesis. Editor Anver Versi talked to the book's lead author, economist Charles Robertson, to outline the case for a defence of the theory.

THE ONE THING MOST ECONOMISTS AND HISTORIANS are agreed upon is that we have not yet discovered a magic formula that allows us to explain why civilizations rise and fall when they do. The best We can do is in retrospect and assign this or that cause to the rise of this power and the decline of that power but what triggers the change that turns a humdrum nation into a mighty empire, or what series of events bring about the collapse of a mighty power continues to baffle us. There are so many ifs and buts, so many accidental turns, so much good fortune or bad fortune involved in the destiny of nations that crystal ball gazing by crunching numbers has shown up many prophets of the future to be little more than educated idiots.

Take this passage quoted by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's Minister of Finance and the former MD of the World Bank, in a foreword to The Fastest Billion: "Imagine a continent torn by multiple wars, beset by ethnic and religious warfare, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy--all of it complicated by poorly drawn borders, a still potent post-colonial stigma and the incessant meddling of outside powers.

"With a single exception, per capita income hovers at $400, primary school education reaches only a fraction of the region's vast population and its authoritarian rulers ensure any revenues generated by the region's rich natural resources are spent on personal, rather than national priorities. Prospects for pulling the multitudes who live at, or just above, subsistence levels seem remote, at best."

The above passage surely describes Africa? Wrong. It describes Developing Asia in the mid 1970s, "an area of the world," writes Okonjo-Iweala, "that had endured 200 years of decline, imperial domination and economic stagnation before beginning on the path that would transform it into the most economically vibrant zone on earth."

So much for expert' prediction! While the description of Developing Asia given above was accurate, the conclusion that therefore it was doomed to failure has been shown to be so much hogwash. The error was to omit any reference to the human spirit and to assume that the people would continue to live in the misery that history had dumped them into. In fact, any sensible reading of history would show that the world's great empires more often than not rose out of the ashes of defeat and destruction. If there is a pattern to discern, it is that those people who are most able to adapt and adopt to their times that emerge stronger and richer while those that become rigid and inflexible are fated to wither and decline.

History also shows that the need to adapt and adopt is strongest among people who face the most challenging environments and that necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. It was true of war-torn, famine-riddled Europe in the Middle Ages and it has been true for the Asia described above. But when the turning point arrives, by whatever mysterious routes it is reached, the ascent is often rapid and spectacular.

"In the 196os," author Robertson told me, "all the indicators pointed to Burma (now Myanmar) as the success story while Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were riven by deadly ethnic violence and civil strife. …

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