Africa is complex. Africa continues to defy every simplistic, normative label the so-called experts throw at the 30 million square kilometre landmass of 1.2 billion people, which comprises 54 sovereign countries.
The term Dark Continent was used to describe a continent and peoples largely unknown and mysterious to Europeans. After colonialism Africa was the spectacular poster boy of disease, war, hunger and deprivation. At the turn of the 21st century The Economist was persuaded that Africa was The Hopeless Continent.
A scar on the conscience of the world is what Tony Blair called Africa in 2001. About 10 years since a British Prime Minister and an authoritative British magazine wrote off a continent and its people something changed. Africa, according to The Economist was rising because “shops are stacked six feet with goods, streets are jammed with customers and salespeople are sweating profusely.”
On the heels of the Africa Rising exuberance was another discovery; the African middle class. A much-discredited report by the African Development Bank claimed that Africa’s middle class had tripled in 30 years to a whopping 313 million, 34 per cent of the continent’s population.
Like the African armyworm the African consumer legion had parachuted in. Shortly, a new gold rush for the African consumer was underway. Retail outlets, new shopping malls, office space and swanky apartments sprouted up with fury. The world’s largest food group, Nestlé, and the world’s largest brewer, Diageo, came calling.
Today, Africa is facing the worst economic downturn in two decades. Was Africa Rising and the ensemble of the consuming classes all a phantom? Did The Economist and the African Development Bank get it all wrong? Do we understand or know how to measure economic growth and social development in the age of globalisation?
It is simple and stupid; if an economy is not transforming structurally from dead-end activities such as agricultural commodities, commodity agriculture, fishing, logging and mining into activities that enhance value, with increasing returns such as manufacturing, then growth or development is neither deep nor durable.
Like Icarus in Greek mythology, the wax on the wings of Africa Rising is melting and the continent is hurtling. Africa’s growth logic is structurally flawed. For example, manufacturing value added of African exports is falling; 23 African countries had negative MVA per capita growth during the period 1990 - 2010, and only five countries achieved an MVA per capita growth above four per cent.
The experts and their orchestra – the United Nations, governments, donors and NGOs – are spawning new myths about Africa’s development. The ingredients of the new broth of myths are youth, agriculture, technical and vocational training, urbanisation and infrastructure. I use the term myth to refer to simplistic, lazy silver-bullet solutions peddled by experts.
African scholars and intellectuals arise, step up to the plate! We must lead the painstaking search for our path to durable progress. Yes, we must be part of the orchestra. But for the African dance, we must be the drummers.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University