by Robert Rotberg

Sub-Saharan Africa is indeed rising. Thanks to Chinese demand for raw materials, especially petroleum and iron ore, much of Africa is growing (as measured by GDP per capita) at more than six percent per annum. Many of the globe’s fastest advancing countries are in Africa. South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy and an outlier, lags dramatically, with GDP growth this year predicted at a mere 1.6 percent (after 1.9 percent last year).

As Steve Block wisely reminds us in an earlier post in this series, some of this rising momentum stems from a retreat from statist policies and an embrace in many states of open macroeconomics and markets. He also points correctly to better governance as a driver of improvements in economic outcomes, largely echoing the findings of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and my own work on governmental performance (the delivery of services by governments—governance) in Africa.

Driving better governance, freer elections, a wholesale adoption of modern mobile telephony and text messaging, and broader outlooks has been the remarkable rise of a middleclass (and a middleclass consciousness) that now counts about a third of all Africans in its ranks. There are more university graduates than ever before and, thanks to the Internet, a new sense of connectivity to developments throughout the planet.

But as Alex de Waal in an earlier post hinted, Africa’s continued rise must overcome a series of consummate challenges over the next several decades. The most severe of those challenges is demographic. Sub-Saharan Africa is about to explode numerically. Its population of one billion will double by 2050 and more than triple by the end of the twenty-first century. Nigeria, with 170 million people now, will swell to 730 million in eighty-five years, becoming the third largest state in the world (India will be the largest nation, China the second most peopled, and the United States the fourth in order.) Ranking after the U.S., startlingly, will be Tanzania, zooming from today’s fifty million people to 316 million in 2100. The Democratic Republic of Congo, up from seventy million to 212 million over the same period, becomes the world’s eighth largest entity. Even impoverished Malawi, now with about thirteen million people, will grow to 130 million by the end of the century.

Africa could have a demographic dividend, based on its massive population growth and its resulting preponderance of working-age adults. But it is not clear where the jobs will come from. When Southeast Asia benefited in the twentieth century from its demographic dividend, job creation kept pace with population growth and the new (largely) industrial workers became avid consumers. Good governance and good management made this major growth acceleration possible.

At the heart of these important changes in Asia (as now in China) was a critical expansion of educational opportunity and quality. Africa’s continued rise is greatly handicapped by its weak educational outcomes. A few sub-Saharan African countries provide primary education for all eligible children, and many others do nearly as well. But secondary enrollments, especially for girls, are less than robust. Completion rates are only middling. Even in South Africa, only half of those who begin secondary school finish, and of those who finally sit the school-leaving examination (“matriculation”), less than fifty percent pass and only twelve percent achieve results that qualify them for university entrance.

South Africa, Nigeria, and Ethiopia have proportionally large numbers of university graduates (not all of whom stay home). But, overall in sub-Saharan Africa, today there are only university places for a mere six percent of those who graduate from secondary school. Skilled employees are consequently scarce, and will be for decades. Sub-Saharan Africa will find it hard to enjoy a demographic dividend if high-tech and other modern industries cannot be staffed locally.

Among other challenges threatening the sustainability of Africa’s rise is its widespread energy shortfall. Even major countries such as South Africa and Nigeria lack sufficient electrical power. Spain’s electrical power capacity is the equal of sub-Saharan Africa’s total, although new Chinese-constructed hydro-electrical facilities may end power shortages by 2025.

Corruption also hampers growth and detracts from the kind of improved governance that Block describes. Except for Botswana, Rwanda, and Mauritius, corruption is everywhere—not least in the petroleum producing polities. South Africa, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Sudan are all wildly corrupt.

Since much of Africa is still pre-institutional, effective and responsive political leadership is essential if Africa is to catch up economically and socially with the rest of the world, especially Asia. Better schooling, more and better jobs, new foreign investment, reduced corruption, and other essentials depend on improved leadership—on the rise of Mandela-like politicians. If the middle class in Africa fails to demand or develop such leaders, Africa could easily collapse under the weight of its coming population burden. The demographic dividend could instead become a demographic disaster, with more civil wars, more criminalized cities, more despots, and fewer democrats. This decade and the next are critical, everywhere south of the Sahara.


This piece is part of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs’ 2014 Global Risk Forum. The Global Risk Forum is an effort to convene conversations around some of the most pressing issues we face as a global community in the year ahead: the breakdown of climate change negotiations; the spread of sectarian violence in the Middle East; the credit crisis and economic slowdown in China; the growth of cyber espionage; and the unraveling of Africa’s economic boom. We encourage you to read the conversations, participate with written responses or on social media, and help us work together to produce constructive ideas that will reduce the aggregate risks we face. 

About the Author

Robert I. Rotberg was Academic Vice President of Tufts University before becoming President of Lafayette College and returning to Harvard University. He is the Founding Director of the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Intrastate Conflict and President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. Among his books are Africa Emerges: Consummate Challenges, Abundant Opportunities (2013) and Transformative Political Leadership: Making a Difference in the Developing World (2012). He blogs as Africa and Asia: the Key Issues.

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