Africa is two countries

Rur roh. I’ve used the term “Sub-Saharan Africa” both in teaching and in my research many times.  However, I just learned that the phrase is neither politically or geographically correct.  Yikes!

A recent Quartz article makes the following points:

First, the term isn’t geographically correct in some cases. For instance,  “The UN Development Program lists 46 of Africa’s 54 countries as ‘sub-Saharan,’ [but] four countries included are on the Sahara, while Eritrea is deemed “sub-Saharan” but its southern neighbor Djibouti isn’t.”

Second, development agencies aren’t consistent in their labeling.  In its definition of Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank includes the 46 countries as the UN Development Program  but also includes Sudan and Somalia.

Third, instead of treating Africa as a single country (sadly still commonplace in the media), we tend to treat it as two (Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa).

The article also delves into the history of the term, noting that Sub-Saharan Africa replaced the more politically incorrect terms “Tropical Africa” and “Black Africa” that were prevalent in early research.  Some argue that the new term is equally problematic:
Tatenda Chinondidyachii Mashanda, a politics and international affairs scholar at Wake Forest University argues that “[it] is a way of saying ‘Black Africa’ and talking about black Africans without sounding overtly racist.”

Brian Larkin, a  Columbia University anthropologist, would agree, arguing that dividing Africa into Northern African and Sub-Saharan Africa reflects “‘racist’ colonial theories that thought northern Africa more culturally developed.” 

Time to re-think how I will describe my data the next time I write a paper with African countries!


Language & Human Capital

One of my favorite former students, Priscilla Gomes, is now working as a technical adviser to PASEC in Senegal.  PASEC stands for Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems and, amongst other things, it has just published an assessment of primary education in 10 Francophone Sub-Saharan Countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad,Congo,Côte d’Ivoire,Niger,Senegal andTogo).  It was quite an undertaking, involving about 40,000 students and almost 2,000 schools.

Here is an executive summary of what they found, entitled “Education System Performance in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa:  Competencies and Learning factors in primary education.”  The summary is worth checking out in full because the results are really interesting.  What most caught my eye though was some good news about a country that has seen very little good news of late:  Burundi.

Overall, the study found that “70% of early primary pupils are below the “suficient” threshold in language” in these 10 countries.  Burundi stands out in two ways:

  1. “the language of the test, which is also the language of instruction (Kirundi) is familiar to pupils, and
  2. almost eight in ten pupils achieve the “suficient” threshold in language, and seven in ten pupils achieve the mathematics threshold.

The results also show that student results in language and math are highly correlated.  That is, “whatever the country, pupils and schools that are successful in language achieve high scores in mathematics, and vice-versa.”

I have always found the language of instruction to be an interesting issue in human capital formation.  One of my earliest articles studied differences in economic development across British and French former colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I found that ex-British colonies tended to have higher levels of education and hypothesized that it might be because British colonial policy was to train native educators to teach in the local vernacular.


Will manufacturing ever boom in Sub-Saharan Africa?

We observe that in recent decades, manufacturing jobs have moved around the world looking for spots that minimize costs. From the US to say South Korea, then to China, and now to Vietnam and others.

Will African countries be next? Well, a recent working paper from the Center for Global Development suggests that one factor standing in the way is comparatively high labor costs in SSA.

Here’s the “money shot” from the paper:


Now, those lines might look close to each other, but the chart is in a log scale so the gaps are pretty large. At around $4000 value added per worker, the gap is about 50%!

At this rate, it’s not going to be the lure of cheap labor that will draw global manufacturing to SSA.

PS: the paper uses, 

 “comparable, cross-sectional data from 10,502 manufacturing firms in 12 Sub-Saharan African countries (Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia) and 13 comparators from four regions (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, and Bangladesh).”


Are Leaders to Blame for Slow Growth?

Andrew Mwenda has another excellent article up on the Independent.  He argues that it isn’t helpful to blame Africa’s economic problems on bad leadership.  It may be true that Africa has had a disproportionate share of bad leaders, but this just begs the question of why bad leaders keep rising to the top.  Here are some of his main points:

1. “Sub-Saharan Africa has had many changes of leaders over the last 50 years – in all over 300 presidents. Basic mathematical probability would tell you that if the personalities of these individual presidents were the main explanation for poor performance, out of these 300 leaders Africa would have had a high chance to produce the hero we have been looking for like a Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore), a Park Chung Hee (South Korea) or a Chiang Kai Shek (Taiwan). Yet even after 14 presidents of Nigeria, 10 of Ghana, eight of Uganda, four of Tanzania and Kenya, five in Zambia etc we have not seen this happen.

2. Our leaders don’t come from Asia or Europe. They are products of our societies. Therefore, even if their venality was the driving force behind our poverty and bad politics, there must be unique fissures within our societies that produce such a disproportionate amount of poor leadership.

3. There was as much corruption, dictatorship and nepotism in Indonesia under Suharto as in Nigeria under its various military rulers. Yet the developmental results of the two countries were different. In South Korea two former military rulers were arrested and tried for corruption in the 1990s – Chang Du Hwan and Tae Won Roh and both admitted to accumulating fortunes worth over US$ 600 million while in office. 

4. This tendency to perpetually condemn our political leaders is actually one way we African elites exonerate ourselves of the blame we must share and allows us to carry a holier-than-thou attitude.”

Mwenda consistently has interesting and thought provoking columns on development and comparisons between Africa and Asia.  I’ve been so impressed that I have incorporated a couple of them into my Ph.D. syllabus on economic development.

Interesting new papers on African institutions

The Journal of African Economies has a special issue this month on the topic of institutions and African economies.  In my Ph.D. development class I have a section on African economic development, so I am eager to check these out and see if there are any I should add to the syllabus.

All of the articles look promising, but here are the two I find most interesting ex ante:

“The New Institutionalism and Africa” by Robert H. Bates & Anke Hoeffler

After briefly reviewing the new institutionalism, this article uses the history of political reform in Africa to test its key tenet:  that power, if properly organised, is a productive resource. It does so by exploring the relationship between changes in political institutions and changes in economic performance, both at the macro- and the micro level. The evidence indicates that political reform (Granger) causes increases in GDP per capita in the African subset of global data. And, at the micro level, it demonstrates that changes in national political institutions in Africa strongly relate to changes in total factor productivity in agriculture.
“Growth of African Economies: Productivity, Policy Syndromes and the Importance of Institutions” by Augustin Kwasi Fosu

Recent evidence from an exhaustive political-economy study of growth of African economies—the Growth Project of the African Economic Research Consortium—suggests that ‘policy syndromes’ have substantially contributed to the generally poor growth in Sub-Saharan Africa during post-independence. The current article employs the unique data and insights generated by the Growth Project to further explore the importance of a ‘syndrome-free’ (SF) regime for growth in the region by examining: (i) the channels via which SF affects growth: total factor productivity versus factors of production and (ii) the role of institutions in mediating this impact, with special attention accorded to the efficacy of the restraint on the executive branch of government in mitigating the potentially adverse effect of ethnicity.