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It's Too Early to Break Out the Sorghum Beer: Is Africa Turning the Corner on Poverty?

05/16/2014 05:57 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

Is Africa truly rising? The IMF recently estimated 5.5 percent average annual growth rates for the continent. This provoked the usual rash of breathless predictions that we will soon see the end of mass poverty in Africa. Certainly the statistics look impressive out of context, but they should be taken with a pound of salt.

For a start, Africa's economies start from an extremely low base, so it would be surprising if growth did not look encouraging, given how much of the continent is being dug up and put on boats to China.

Besides, as Morten Jerven shows in Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics, data from Africa are largely worthless and highly political, manipulated by local officials and aid-giving nations to tell a happy story rather than an accurate one.

Sadly, some Western commentators take an either/or view of Africa, rather than one that reflects the different identities of the continent's 54 nations. Within those countries are contrasts between rural and urban life, between the ritzy gated communities of the African elite and the stinking slums, between prosperous farmland and formerly rich agricultural areas now being devastated by climate disruption. After all, only a fool would judge the USA by New York or the UK by London.

Is it too much to grasp that while the skyscrapers of Nairobi, Lagos and Luanda sparkle on the horizon like Oz, there is a different reality at the end of the dirt track, in the grindingly poor rural Africa that Western reporters in Land Cruisers only see when a war or famine is making headlines?

To some extent even the skyscrapers are a Potemkin village. If you enter many of them you find elevators that haven't worked in years, officials sitting in semi-darkness during frequent power cuts, and silence where there should be activity.

We need to recognize that the effects of generations of malnourishment and illness will not be reversed just because the Chinese are buying up the continent's resources, enriching the plump and entitled ruling one per cent.

The Africa I know from a decade's work is a place where many women are worn out by the time they are thirty, producing babies each year, doing all the domestic and agricultural work because tradition dictates men do not so much as carry a bucket of water. Africa's development will be stunted while local cultural allows some men to be idle.

For the many men keen to work, however, the current economic growth provides little grounds for optimism. According to the International Labour Organization, this may be a "jobless recovery." As Amadou Sy from the Brookings Institute puts it, "There are concerns that this impressive growth has failed to translate into job creation, resulting in persistent inequality and undermining government and donor-led efforts to reduce poverty."

Almost as simplistic is the line trotted out by donor nations trying to justify their sometimes less than careful management of Western taxpayers' money: Much of Africa now has democratic governments. The governments of Nigeria and Kenya (two of the big three economies) were certainly democratically elected, but along ethnic lines, a recipe for prolonged conflict. Before they left so hastily, the Europeans did not replace the tribal systems that had enabled them to divide and rule, co-opting greedy elders to do their bidding for them. Hence tribal parties enrich themselves with an avarice that would make the Wolf of Wall Street blush.

What should inspire us more than dubious growth figures is the ability of many Africans to circumvent corrupt and hopeless officialdom and stagnant formal markets. They have improvised and created informal economies, and their patience with the indifference and self-indulgence of some of their leaders is astonishing. But that forbearance owes something to factors that hold some Africans back: persisting deference, passivity and a rational fear of authority grounded in centuries of being enslaved, oppressed and exploited by their tribal leaders, as well as colonialists.

Of course credit is due to the African nations rebuilding themselves after conflict or genocide, or investing their mineral revenues in projects benefiting the many, rather than the few. But we should also pay attention when Africans like Archbishop Tutu and the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka warn us that talk of an African renaissance is premature.

According to Elsie Kanza of the World Economic Forum, meeting in Abuja last week, "Africa's continued progress depends fundamentally on the ability of its leaders to take the bold decisions necessary to transform the region's economy and society."

Some Western politicians have suddenly noticed that Joseph Kony and Boko Haram are making life hell for certain Africans. Their indignation would be more convincing if they didn't routinely turn a blind eye to systematic human rights abuses in racist kleptocracies like Sudan and Zimbabwe. Their conspicuous displays of concern might be more useful if they questioned the wisdom of propping up monstrous regimes because they are "on our side in the war on terror."

Our leaders lecture Africa's rulers about their useless institutions and crooked governance, mouthing platitudes about building capacity. There is a Swahili word for officials who take foreign aid and spend it on themselves: Wabenzi -- after the Mercedes Benz cars. Diverting our aid to proven local agents of change, the many African charities doing excellent work, might send a stronger message than our half-hearted homilies, or our giddy celebration of Africa's economic growth.