Should we be cheerful about African progress?

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

3 thoughts on “Should we be cheerful about African progress?”

  1. Keep in mind that home production, something that many subsistence level economies feature, isn't counted in GDP calculations because no market transactions take place. So you should get a huge boost just moving from home production to market production even if there is only a small quality of life change.

  2. "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."

    Uh, the colonial days would have probably had well-functioning systems for pulling wealth out of a place; large

    corporations existed to do just that, with large civil services and occupation forces to make sure that the money flowed. And lavish use of those occupation forces, as needed (that was back in the day when killing a few 10's of thousands of people back in the bush wouldn't be recorded; the press in the capital city might write up government reports of 'bandit suppression').

  3. Barry:

    A lot depends on exactly how the national income acounting was done back in colonial days. If the money from exploitation of resources and population appeared in the national accounts, you'd be right; otherwise things are even worse than we think.

    Oh, and just for a comparison point, US GDP in the same period has grown by about 700%. We've had three doublings in the time Africa has had less than one, and starting from a higher point.

    Some economists I used to know said that one of the reasons african development was so slow was that the colonizing countries had taken a very different approach from the one taken in east and south asia, and employed nonlocal clerical workers. Then when the colonial administration pulled out, so did much of the corporate and bureaucratic knowledge. Don't how true it is, but it would certainly make kleptocracy easier.

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