Even 20 years ago, the Brundtland Commission was aware of the African exceptionalism that persists today. Africa had the longest index entry in the commission’s report. Today, all developing country regions have shown marked improvement except for sub-Saharan Africa. For example, between 1980 and 2000, economic growth per capita in 56 developing countries in Asia and Latin America increased 4.4 percent per year, while it declined by 0.6 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Annual food production per capita in Asia grew by 2.3 percent and in Latin America by 0.9 percent, but it declined in tropical Africa by 0.01 percent. The number of people living on $1 or less per day declined by 25 percent in South Asia and 50 percent in East Asia but grew by 4 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Scientists and policymakers suggest many causes for this African exceptionalism but offer few conclusions. The geopolitical explanation focuses on a heritage of colonialism that left little infrastructure or economic, health, or education systems in place and created conflict-laden borders and many, small, landlocked nations: perfect conditions for future problems. Added to this was the lack of effective or sufficient development aid and the failure of a globalized economy to bring benefits to Africa: U.S. and European policies still block African access to global markets.
The “poverty trap” explanation shows how Africans are locked in a vicious circle: little savings lead to low capital investment, which leads to less education and fewer skills, which leads to little savings. The governance explanation attributes African exceptionalism to a culture that counters entrepreneurship with ties of ethnicity and family, leading to conflict and maintaining high levels of corruption.
Most recently, the geography explanation blames the exceptionalism on the extensive aridity, poor soils, and endemic disease of the African continent; the scattered populations in many small landlocked nations; and the highest population growth rates in the world. My own assessment is that geopolitics, poverty, governance, and geography all contribute to African exceptionalism, although the respective importance of each varies by region, country, and locality.
The most promising efforts to address African exceptionalism within the context of sustainability science and policy deal directly with its varied causes. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is one of many pan-African initiatives for better governance. Despite the failures to end conflicts in Chad, Sudan, and Somalia and the retreat from democracy in Zimbabwe, governance has improved. Violent conflicts have virtually ended in the Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and have been prevented in Burundi and Togo. The increasing leadership from major African nations has been inspiring, and peaceful transitions of power are slowly emerging as a norm.
Several small-scale but important experiments in escaping the poverty trap include the Millennium Village experiments planned for 12 countries and the effort to provide local capital and initiative in Nigeria through 800 community banks and links to the extensive Nigerian diaspora. Increasingly, education and science are also seen as mechanisms to escape the poverty trap, and new initiatives seek to overcome the limits of small, poor countries.
Finally, the limits of geography are being addressed (the effort against illness is spearheaded by the Gates Foundation). Population growth continues to slow with reduced births, and unfortunately, increased deaths from AIDS and tuberculosis. But the most important way of reversing agricultural decline and overcoming the limits of the land is to make fertilizer available and affordable. Farmers in other developing country regions use 8 to 15 times more fertilizer per hectare than African farmers. Until that changes, African exceptionalism will persist.
—Robert W. Kates