When Tyler Cowen linked to this bit of feel-good about conditions in sub-Saharan Africa by Charles Kenney, I was annoyed by its casual use of data.
For example, Kenney mentions average growth in GDP per capita of 67% between 1950 and 2001 as if that were an encouraging statistic. But 67% over 51 years is just about 1% per year (remember, growth compounds), and implies about 72 years to double. Doubling every two generations isn’t what I’d call rapid growth, when it starts from such a low base.
And of course GDP per capita is far from a perfect measure of welfare. It ignores distribution, which means that a billion dollars to a dictator’s Swiss bank account is as much “growth” as an extra $100 for each of 10 million families. I suspect the kleptocrats’ share in national income has grown since colonial days. Moreover, that figure doesn’t measure either resource depletion – the oil Nigeria sells now it can’t sell later – nor environmental degradation.
Surely Kenney is right to say that GDP also leaves out some gains, for example in education and sanitation. Kenney stresses the increase in life expectancies. But he doesn’t mention that since the AIDS epidemic sub-Saharan Africa has been making progress backwards on that measure. Kenney gives the life expectancy in Niger as 57, and cites the increase (from 40 in 1962) as evidence that health gains can be made largely independent of income gains. But the latest U.N. Human Development Report puts Nigerien life expectancy at just under 45 years.
So no, the situation isn’t hopeless. But it ain’t good, either.