This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Africa: The Good, the Bad, and the Future
Yakima Rotary Club
23 July 2015
David H. Shinn
It’s a pleasure to return to the Yakima Rotary Club. My remarks today look at “Africa:
The Good, the Bad, and the Future.” I know some of you have visited African countries; in fact I
met several of you in Ethiopia in connection with Project Mercy, which has been supported by
Yakima Rotary. I am assuming, however, that many of you have not been to Africa.
Most Americans have minimal understanding of Africa and it tends to be defined by the
occasional dramatic headline. Unfortunately, news stories about Africa are usually negative
because bad news sells better than good news and there is a limited market for stories about
Africa. I am sure all of you have seen coverage of civil war, famine, terrorist attacks,
HIV/AIDS, and Ebola somewhere in Africa in recent years. Africa has its share, actually more
than its share, of these negative events. My purpose is not to dismiss the negative developments,
but I want to highlight the positive trends and look to the future.
Africa in Perspective
First, let me put Africa in perspective. It is a continent of 54 independent countries,
which is more than one-quarter of all members of the United Nations. Consequently, it is
misleading, as I am doing now, to treat it as a single unit. Africa has a total population of 1.1
billion people. This is more than three times the population of the United States. Sub-Sahara
Africa, but not North Africa, is experiencing the world’s highest urbanization and population
Africa is so large geographically that you could fit the United States, China, India, and all
of Europe into its borders. Put another way, Africa is the size of 164 Washington States. We
speak frequently and proudly of ethnic diversity in the United States. But Africa has between
2,000 and 3,000 indigenous and distinct ethnic groups.
It is also important to keep in mind that the vast majority of African countries became
independent only since the late 1950s. Consider this. All but a few African countries have not
been independent for as long as the United States was independent before it experienced the
Civil War. These young countries are still dealing with growing pains.
The Good and the Bad
The negative events in Africa that have continued for long periods of time tend to be
concentrated in a few countries: sporadic conflict since independence in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, periodic war in Sudan since independence, and a failed state in Somalia
Some long-standing civil wars—Angola, Mozambique, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—
ended years ago and these countries subsequently have been largely conflict free. Some nasty
short-lived conflicts—the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, the Somali invasion of Ethiopia, the
Biafra independence movement in Nigeria, the genocide in Rwanda, and civil war in Cote
d’Ivoire—are now just part of Africa’s history. Unfortunately, the more recent Arab Spring in
North Africa has resulted in conflict in Egypt, terrorist attacks in Tunisia, and a virtual failed
state in Libya.
But those countries that never experienced significant conflict since independence are
rarely mentioned in the Western press unless they are tourist attractions. They include Botswana,
Namibia, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, Ghana, and Morocco.
There is much additional good news in Africa. Over the past ten years, African countries
have on average experienced an annual 5 percent GDP growth rate, even during the 2007-2009
economic recession in the West. During this same period of time, the annual GDP growth rate in
the United States was less than half this amount. This improvement in the economy of most
African countries has led to an impressive rise in foreign investment.
There have been dramatic increases in the percentage of children attending both primary
and secondary school. There has also been a broad expansion of universities across Africa.
Although Ebola and, before that, HIV/AIDS have dominated the health news out of Africa, there
has been progress on many fronts. Polio, with huge financial backing from Rotary International,
has almost been eliminated. Lesser known diseases such as Guinea worm are now confined to a
small number of isolated locations.
The corner has even been turned on HIV/AIDS, which has a declining infection rate and
much lower death rate as compared to ten years ago. The average life expectancy in Africa in
1960 was 40 years. An African born in 2013 can expect to live 59 years, still the lowest age for
any continent but an improvement of 19 years since 1960.
There have been enormous improvements in infrastructure, especially roads, railways,
dams, ports, and public and private buildings. African cities that I lived in or visited in the 1960s
and 1970s are no longer recognizable because there has been so much new construction.
But what about the future of Africa? Africa, especially that part south of the Sahara, is
predicted to have the most rapid population growth of any world region through the end of this
century. This has huge implications for the continent which could be either positive or negative.
Having a younger population is usually a good thing as it increases worker productivity. But if
African countries are unable to create jobs for all of these additional people, you have high
unemployment and large numbers of unhappy young people. This often leads to political
Africa is also urbanizing rapidly, albeit from a low base. This, too, can have positive or
negative implications. It is generally more cost efficient to provide social services such as health
and education in urban areas than in rural areas. Larger cities are more attractive locations for
economic and investment activity. Urban clusters tend to be the drivers of future economic
But if too many Africans move from farms to the city without major improvements in
agricultural production, this will put more pressure on the food supply in Africa, which is
currently a net importer of food. A greater concentration of people in urban areas also increases
the prospects for social and political instability.
The projections for the growth of religion in Africa are intriguing. North Africa is
overwhelmingly Muslim and will remain so. By 2050, in Sub-Saharan Africa Christians will
remain the largest religious group, numbering about 1.1 billion. But Islam is growing faster in
Sub-Sahara Africa than Christianity and Muslims will number about 670 million by 2050. After
accounting for other small religious groups and those not affiliated with religion, this means that
by 2050, Sub-Sahara Africa will be about 59 percent Christian and 35 percent Muslim.
While there are many unknowns about climate change, it is indisputable that since the
beginning of the industrial age the planet has been getting warmer. In Africa the temperature has
risen by just under one degree Celsius and is projected to rise by the 2030s to 1.5 degrees Celsius
above pre-industrial levels. The experts believe that the tropical areas of the world will be more
impacted by climate change than the temperate zones. Even small increases in temperature are
having and will continue to have important impacts on agriculture in Africa and they will be
more negative than positive.
Southern, Central, West, and North Africa may experience increasing drought while East
Africa may have less. Most parts of Africa will have greater variability in rainfall, which will
pose a challenge for farmers who will find it more difficult to plan ahead for the next growing
season. The Indian Ocean has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since 1950; this causes fish
stocks to seek colder water. Pastoralists may have to move their livestock over greater distances
to find greener pastures.
African economies remain heavily dependent on the export of raw materials such as oil
and minerals. To stay competitive in the future, the economies must diversify; to their credit
they have begun this effort by improving infrastructure and increasing training of the workforce.
They need to create a single continental market for trading goods and services; again, African
countries are taking steps to develop such a market. Tourism should become a growing industry
in Africa, including in some countries that do not have game parks.
Africa has an estimated 60 percent of the world’s potentially agriculturally productive
land. If properly developed and if Africa improves its agricultural inputs and methods, it has the
potential to not only feed everyone on the continent but become a major exporter of food.
Africa is using only 8 percent of its hydropower potential and has an estimated 50 percent
of the world’s renewable energy—hydropower, solar, and wind. Developing these power sources
could give Africa a major economic advantage in the future.
Africa is also well behind the rest of the world in information and communication
technology. But it is making a serious effort to improve this sector and is in a position to
leapfrog much out-of-date technology and install the most modern available ICT equipment.
There are numerous potential social problems that Africa must try to minimize. In
addition to youth unemployment, it must work to avoid increasing poverty in the expanding
urban areas. As incomes improve, African countries will have to deal with the challenge of
serious income inequality.
Some countries have not measured up when it comes to democratic governance, the
development of civil society, and combatting corruption. Internal political conflict has been
much too common in Africa; the continent will never fully succeed until more countries make
the transition to good governance, social harmony, and political stability. More recently,
terrorism and religious extremism have appeared and show no sign of abating. These
developments contribute to internally displaced persons, refugees, and more migration; these
trends must be reversed.
The challenges facing African countries are daunting, but not insurmountable. With
sound leadership, goodwill from the rest of the world, and a pinch of good luck, Africa should be
able to thrive in the coming decades.