Is Africa going boom or bust?

Published: Saturday, May 25 2013 10:26 a.m. MDT

In this Monday, April 30, 2012 photo, Mariam Orgho, 3, looks at her mother, Coumba Seck, The family struggles to find enough food to eat as there is a drought in their region.

Rebecca Blackwell, AP

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Two men are vying for the distinction of the wealthiest man in Africa. The current leader, Ethiopian-born Mohammed Al-Amoudi, made his $12.5 billion fortune in oil, according to Forbes. But close on Al-Amoudi's heels is Nigerian Aliko Dangote, who made his $11.2 billion fortune in cement.

Part of what is interesting about Dangote and Al-Amoudi is that both earned their fortunes through legitimate business dealings. This stands in stark contrast to the history of African wealth often accumulated through fraud and corruption. These billionaires represent more than a less corrupt continent, according to the Economist, but that isn't all. "Legitimately self-made African billionaires are harbingers of hope. They exemplify how far Africa has come and give reason to believe that its recent high growth rates may continue."

The Economist is referring to new data on Africa's impressive economic growth. "From Ghana in the West to Mozambique in the South, Africa's economies are consistently growing faster than those of almost any other region of the world," according to the Economist. "At least a dozen have expanded by more than 6% a year for six or more years." Between 2001 and 2010, six African countries — Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda — were on the International Monetary Fund’s list of the 10 fastest growing economies.

Confronting bias

This promising trajectory notwithstanding, images of a thriving Africa are not normally what Westerners see. Swedish photographer Jens Assur hopes to confront this bias with his new photo exhibit, "Africa is a Great Country," which is currently on display at Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm.

"In Sweden, we see only two types of pictures from Africa," Assur told Foreign Policy. "It's either war, famine, and HIV, or pretty lions on the savanna. I know, because I have myself contributed to those images, being a photojournalist in the ’90s."

However for this project, Assur decided to focus on the African revolution of construction, infrastructure, growth and development. “I want to show an Africa where 1/4th of the population now is middle class, where in Kenya 55% of all financial transactions are done by mobile phone; an Africa where giant building projects happen all the time,” he said.

The exhibit has attracted its share of controversy. “Using a title ‘Africa is a great country’ is unfortunate, because it may — unintentionally — help to feed the stereotype where Africa, a continent, is equated to a country. This comes in the background of the fact that, in the real-life situation, Africa has indeed been referred to as a country by many ignorant people,” wrote Francis Matabalya and Henning Melber in an opinion piece for the Nordic Africa Development Policy Forum, a Swedish public policy group dedicated to promoting development in Africa.

Assur’s response is that the name of the exhibit is intentionally ironic and meant "to draw attention to the tendency many people have to lump Africa's more than 50 countries into one category," he told Foreign Policy. Assur hopes that the images will push people to see not how "Africa is dying" but rather "how Africa lives."

A mythical rise

The name isn’t the only controversial thing about Assur’s exhibit. Critics also argue the optimistic presentation of African economic growth is misleading. There is concern that the metrics being used (Africa's recent high GDP growth rates, rising per capita incomes, and the explosive growth of mobile phones and mobile phone banking) by the IMF are unhelpful when gauging Africa's development, according to an opinion piece published in Foreign Policy by Rick Rowden, an adviser to the United Nations.

The problem, according to Rowden, is that "these indicators only give a partial picture of how well development is going — at least as the term has been understood over the last few centuries. From the late 15th century … development has generally been taken as a synonym for 'industrialization.' Rich countries figured out long ago, if economies are not moving out of dead-end activities that only provide diminishing returns over time (primarily agriculture and extractive activities such as mining, logging and fisheries), and into activities that provide increasing returns over time (manufacturing and services), then you can't really say they are developing."

A better way of measuring development in African countries then, according to Rowden, would be to look at "whether manufacturing has been increasing as a percentage of GDP, or whether the manufacturing value added (MVA) of exports has been rising." Using these numbers, Africa as a region is in serious trouble. A 2011 report from the United Nations shows that in Africa, manufacturing as a portion of GDP is actually decreasing.

From the report: "there has been a significant decline in the contribution of manufacturing to GDP. In particular, the share of manufacturing in GDP fell from 15.3 percent in 1990 to 12.8 percent in 2000 and 10.5 percent in 2008." This, according to Rowden, does not paint a particularly encouraging picture of Africa's development prospects.

mwhite@deseretnews.com

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