The latest issue of the Economist has “Africa” on the cover, with the pronouncement that the continent has, in the last ten years, moved from hopeless to hopeful.
Africa’s enthusiasm for technology is boosting growth. It has more than 600m mobile-phone users—more than America or Europe. Since roads are generally dreadful, advances in communications, with mobile banking and telephonic agro-info, have been a huge boon. Around a tenth of Africa’s land mass is covered by mobile-internet services—a higher proportion than in India. The health of many millions of Africans has also improved, thanks in part to the wider distribution of mosquito nets and the gradual easing of the ravages of HIV/AIDS. Skills are improving: productivity is growing by nearly 3% a year, compared with 2.3% in America.
All this is happening partly because Africa is at last getting a taste of peace and decent government. For three decades after African countries threw off their colonial shackles, not a single one (bar the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius) peacefully ousted a government or president at the ballot box. But since Benin set the mainland trend in 1991, it has happened more than 30 times—far more often than in the Arab world.
Population trends could enhance these promising developments. A bulge of better-educated young people of working age is entering the job market and birth rates are beginning to decline. As the proportion of working-age people to dependents rises, growth should get a boost. Asia enjoyed such a “demographic dividend”, which began three decades ago and is now tailing off. In Africa it is just starting.
Scholars of historical institutional economics place a lot of emphasis on cognitive states and beliefs about how the world works as central to understanding the evolution and persistence of good institutions. Countries that have emerged out of abject poverty also happen to be those that managed to harness technology and rational-scientific knowledge for the public good.
It is therefore disheartening to read that in Liberia politicians engage in acts that belong in the pre-modern era. Whether they do it merely to instill fear in their opponents or actually believe in what they do is secondary. These acts are simply intolerable.
The Economist reports:
In a case dating from March last year, due to come to court soon, a pregnant woman and her unborn baby were killed and body parts taken. Vials of blood were reportedly found in the house of a senior official in Maryland, a south-eastern county where superstitious beliefs are strong. But reports of such killings come from all over. And traditional “heart men” now include criminals who trade body parts for cash.
Liberia’s long civil war made such things seem less gruesome. In 2008 Milton Blahyi, a former warlord, admitted to eating children’s hearts before going into battle. Along with wearing female wigs and going naked, the practice was believed to bring victory.