The Sunday Magazine

​African economies are doing better than we think - and that's a problem

Morten Jerven says economists have misunderstood GDP growth in many African countries. This has led to bad policies that have held back African economies.
Charcoal workers of a variety of ages wait to sell their loads in Kabezi, Burundi. The men and women often walk most of the night with massive loads of charcoal on their heads to get the product from the forest to the market. (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Think of Africa, and if you're like a lot of people in the West, your mind will fill with images of vast deserts, lush rainforests, the Serengeti spreading to the horizon, and the great animals of Africa. 

If you think of people in Africa, the images might not be so captivating. Violent anarchy in Somalia, the swollen bellies of undernourished children, the squalor of slums, crushing poverty, people wracked by HIV/AIDS or plagues like Ebola. 

Such is the reputation of what strikes much of the West as a grim and hopeless continent. Perhaps it might seem unsurprising that so many people from poor, unstable countries like Eritrea and Sudan have joined the tides of desperate people fleeing by any means necessary to Europe.

Naturally, development experts and economists would try to figure out why poverty is such an intractable problem in countries so rich in natural resources and youthful populations. So they've diagnosed the the causes for the Africa's stubborn economic malaise since the independence movements of the 1950s and 60s … corrupt and incompetent government, inefficient agriculture, over reliance on natural resources and foreign aid, poor education, repressive regimes, disease and malnutrition, and unwise economic policies. 

And from that analysis, they make their prescriptions to bring robust economic growth to Africa and make it possible for a benighted continent to fulfil its promise.

The problem, according to Morten Jerven, is that those economists and other experts fundamentally misunderstand the true nature of growth in African economies over the past five-plus decades and - often out of the best of intentions - impose misguided and even disastrous development and economic policies on African countries.

Morten Jerven is economic historian and associate professor at both the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. His new book is  Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong.