Debating the current socio-economic conditions and future prospects for the African continent has become a regular activity in boardrooms and international conference centres.
At the beginning of this century, such debates still centred on a grand narrative that portrayed Africa as a largely hopeless continent. The predominant image was that of an impoverished child facing a bleak future due to political instability, aid dependency and kleptocratic elites stashing their stolen riches in Swiss bank accounts. Over the course of only a few years, the narrative has radically changed. Today, international consulting firms and popular economic journals constantly remind us that Africa is “on the rise”. Those euphoric about the continent’s future point to the fact that the region is harbouring a number of the world’s fastest growing economies, thanks not only to historic highs in international commodity prices but also to improvements in macro- and microeconomic policy in many countries that have made it easier to invest. However, much like the story of “hopeless Africa”, the “Africa rising” narrative often appears to be emotive and one-dimensional. Its focus on broad-gauge measures of economic growth such as gross domestic product (GDP) glosses over the mixed experiences of the real – or perceived – progress that has been achieved over the last decade. Questions about the social, political and environmental sustainability of the continent’s current development trajectories, and who benefits from them, often remain ignored.
With this edition of Perspectives, the Heinrich Böll Foundation gives Africabased commentators and experts from across the continent the opportunity to critically reflect on the “Africa rising” story and the sub-narratives it carries, including the rise of the African woman, the rise of the African middle class and the power of innovation.
The articles demonstrate that, in too many instances, it is not the wider population but small segments and interested parties, such as the local political elite and foreign investors, who are benefitting from economic growth and resource wealth. Social cohesion, political freedom and environmental protection carry little importance in the comforting world of impressive growth statistics. The glamorous images of Africa’s prominent women and rising middle class produced and re-produced in the media prevent the less attractive and more complex stories about ordinary people’s daily struggles from being heard. Yet these pieces do not simply point out the shortcomings and failures of Africa’s growth story. They also provide insight into how Africa could go beyond the limited concern with economic gain in order to better bridge the gap between the few “haves” and the many “have-nots”. In this context, it will be important for African governments and their development partners to consider that the daily lived realities of most Africans may well be the opposite of what the alluring grand narratives and statistical measures suggest them to be.
We hope that this edition will help to move the debate about Africa’s future away from either irrational depression or unfounded euphoria, and to promote an understanding of development that takes its economic, human and environmental dimensions equally into account.