What Africa can learn from China’s rise

The continent’s human capital is its greatest resource

As China did, Africa must make much bigger investments in its human infrastructure if it is to transform its economic circumstances in the decades ahead.
As China did, Africa must make much bigger investments in its human infrastructure if it is to transform its economic circumstances in the decades ahead.

What Africa can learn from China’s rise

Since the big wave of independence from European rule swept Africa in 1960, no country on the continent has joined the exclusive club of the world’s richest nations.

Africa is hardly alone in this regard. Since World War II, almost all of the countries that have ascended to wealthy status were European beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan, Western settler colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, and a handful of Asian rim countries. The exceptions to this are a select few: states that are fabulously rich in oil and gas.

Still, Africa dominates lists of the world’s poorest nations. If natural resource wealth alone predicted economic success, many African countries—some of them among the world’s most dismal performers, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea—would rank as upper-middle-income societies or perhaps have joined the rich world by now. What we find instead are some modest successes: a couple dozen lower-middle-income countries and a handful of upper-middle-income countries, such as Botswana and Namibia.

Economic performance is not the only measure by which Africa often comes in last. As a longtime writer about Africa, it has always seemed to me to be the continent that receives the most grossly inadequate attention from the rest of the world. This is as true for foreign investment as it is for political engagement and diplomatic efforts in crisis management. It is also the case for press coverage. Sudan, for example, has collapsed into a catastrophic civil war in the past year, producing starvation, 10 million refugees, and untold casualties with hardly a claim on the world’s attention.

However much neglected, facilitating Africa’s economic rise is one of the greatest challenges of this century. Over the coming decades, Africa will be where most of the global population growth occurs. In an era of rapid ageing in many rich societies, it will generate the world’s largest pool of youthful labour. Whether the continent can build robust middle classes will go far in determining the size of global consumer markets.

And if its middle classes do not grow, Africa will become an ever larger source of international migration and the panic accompanying it in the West. Furthermore, reaching global climate goals will require figuring out a way to produce vastly more energy for Africa’s people without emitting carbon on the scale of the West or, more recently, China and India. Today, in many parts of the continent, individuals consume far less electricity per year on average than a typical US refrigerator.

A considerable portion of Africa’s economic difficulties can be put down to ravaging foreign influences. These range from a deep and extremely tragic history of exploitation and subjugation, mostly at the hands of Europeans during the centuries of trade in enslaved peoples, 12 million or so of whom were taken from Africa to power Western wealth creation. My most recent book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, focuses on this history, whose importance to the emergence of the West is still deeply misunderstood and underplayed.

Another deep current of tragedy runs through Africa’s outright takeover by Europe late in the 19th century and a relatively brief period of subsequent colonisation, which is the subject of my forthcoming book. In that era, Europe’s focus was on extraction. Beyond natural resources such as rubber, cocoa, and valuable metals, Europe also extracted African labour on a large scale. Few in the West realise this meant forcing people to work in almost slave-like conditions even after World War II and using large numbers of Africans to fight in Europe’s wars or to labour in pack animal-like supply roles.

Since the continent’s independence era, yet other external factors have contributed to Africa’s failure to take off economically. One of these is the rise of China over the past four-plus decades. China has industrialised on such a massive scale, and with such cheap labour initially, that few other so-called underdeveloped countries have been able to rise sharply in its wake. With its deep fragmentation into 54 mostly small and often landlocked countries—a legacy of colonisation—Africa has been particularly hobbled in this respect.

What I would like to focus on for the remainder of this column, though, are the internally imposed impediments that Africa faces. (I say “internally” while fully recognising that no country can be considered outside of its history.) African countries must address these problems if they are to find a path toward greater prosperity. Perhaps paradoxically, the writings of three scholars whose work makes little or no mention of the continent offer insight into the unique nature of Africa’s current domestic issues and ways that the continent might be able to transform its economic reality.

Wang Feng's China’s Age of Abundance: Origins, Ascendance, and Aftermath, which I recently reviewed, offers fascinating food for thought about Africa’s problems. In his book, Wang, a University of California, Irvine sociologist, indirectly argues that China’s enormous success in generating prosperity between 1979 and 2019 was due to a high degree of political stability and coherence in its economic development program. That is largely because the two leaders who followed the worldly and experienced reformist Deng Xiaoping hewed closely to his road map.

Emerging from poverty is a generational project and not the task of one leader, even a long-serving one. In addition to its numerous other liabilities, Africa has lacked precisely this kind of transgenerational consistency. For the most part, its countries either have suffered under stagnant, long-serving authoritarians who hinder stable rulemaking and institution-building or have been ravaged by instability, usually in the form of coups followed by military rule.

In Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, the University of California, Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong writes eloquently of the costs of turnstile government. Drawing on Niccolo Machiavelli, DeLong argues that the first priority of those who seize or hold power in weak and underdeveloped states is to avoid food riots or any other attack on visible symbols of sovereignty in the capital. Weak governments often fall, for example, after a takeover of the national TV broadcaster or the presidential palace. Their second priority, he writes, is to keep the army happy by buying it off with regular salaries, promotions, and bonuses, along with new weapons systems, uniforms, and other kit. Third on the list is keeping the bureaucracy and political class quiescent, often through financial inducements, and stoking disarray in the opposition.

Almost by definition, most leaders are convinced they are the best person for the job. Some may even harbour genuine hopes of developing their countries and assuring greater prosperity for the people. But, as DeLong writes, these come much further down on the list of priorities: “Only after the government’s seat is secure will debates about development policy take place. But the pursuit of a secure hold on power almost always takes up all the rulers’ time, energy, and resources. The life-span of the average government is often too short for any reasonable historian-critic to expect it to focus on long-run economic development.”

Although DeLong does not focus extensively on Africa, these trends are currently on vivid display in perhaps the least stable region of Africa: the broad belt of nations that stretch beneath the Sahara known as the Sahel, which has seen eight successful coups since 2020.

In Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation, another distinguished economist, the City University of New York’s Branko Milanovic, pursues the puzzle of Africa’s failure to take off further. After performing respectably well in the 1960s and ’70s, the continent experienced an enormous economic setback in the 1990s, a decade when growth virtually ceased in many African countries and actually reversed in some. By 2000, he writes, the continent’s real GDP per capita had sunken catastrophically to 20% below its 1980 level.

Just 13 years later, Africa’s GDP per capita had risen to 1.9 times higher than its 1970 level. This might sound impressive until one compares it with other continents. GDP per capita in Asia, for example, multiplied by a factor of 5 over the same period.

“The problems in Africa are more complex than these numbers suggest,” Milanovic writes. “African countries have often had spurts of growth followed by swift declines, and it is the inability to sustain even modest rates of growth for long periods that seems to be the major problem. The fluctuations in growth are driven by political conflicts, civil wars, and cyclical price trends that affect the natural resources on which much of Africa’s output and exports are based.”

This all returns us to Wang and his analysis of China’s historic era of high growth. Many outsiders complain of corruption in Africa, scarcely considering that China and many other economically successful countries had plenty of corruption. In fact, Beijing long made a public spectacle of executing or imprisoning officials condemned for illicit enrichment. Even many of its high-ranking leaders have built personal fortunes.

Yet while officials in China engage in graft, the projects they commission or oversee overwhelmingly tend to get built, as opposed to fading into oblivion after the money earmarked for them is stolen. A dark joke I’ve heard for years in different parts of Africa holds that even flagrant official enrichment wouldn’t be so bad if only the bridges, highways, and other big projects were brought to fruition.

African countries have often had spurts of growth followed by swift declines. The fluctuations in growth are driven by political conflicts and civil wars.

Branko Milanovic, economist

More than physical infrastructure, though, Wang argues convincingly that what has helped lift China so powerfully in such a brief period of time is its sustained investment in what some economists call its human infrastructure. Even before the Maoist period ended in 1976, China made dramatic progress in improving the general health of its population. This vastly reduced the toll of infectious diseases and other largely preventable causes of death, such as maternal and infant mortality, and led to a more productive population.

The new era of wealth creation that followed Mao Zedong's death has seen constant further improvements in health care that are borne out in all kinds of statistics, starting with the average lifespan—currently 78.99 years—which is comparable to the average in the far richer United States. Africa, which is plagued by endemic tropical diseases such as malaria, has the worst health indicators of any continent. Simple policies such as improving and extending municipal water and rural water systems, for example, could save lives on a large scale and extend longevity.

Wang's book pays even more attention to another aspect of the generational project initiated under Deng to transform China: education. "School enrollment at all levels above primary school grew exponentially. Annual enrollments of junior high school students nationwide rose more than 60% between 1990 and 2000, from 13.7 million to 22.6 million," he writes. "The total number of students enrolled in higher educational institutions rose correspondingly from 2.1 million in 1990, to 5.6 million in 2000, 22.3 million in 2010, to 32.9 million in 2020." Through this monumental expansion of its educational system, China has dramatically and continuously upgraded the quality of its workforce.

Africa today is starting from an even lower base of educational attainment. Illiteracy is still widespread in some African countries, and in many countries, girls receive much less schooling than boys. The continent has no choice but to make much bigger investments in its human infrastructure if it is to transform its economic circumstances in the decades ahead. Its people are as naturally endowed as people anywhere, but participation in the global economy in more rewarding ways will depend on much greater intellectual production from the continent—and so will finding African solutions to African problems, and that can only come through education.

Much of Africa's lagging education performance today is a legacy of colonial rule when Europeans feared that large classes of educated Africans would imperil their control of the continent's people and resources. The question today is whether Africa's current leaders can grasp that its people and their brains are the continent's greatest resource. An educational revolution won't solve every problem, but without one, few of Africa's other looming challenges can be met.

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