Africa’s Century of Growth?

On Morten Jerven’s The Wealth and Poverty of African States (Cambridge University Press, 2022)

Review by Alden Young in the Phenomenal World: On May 1, 2014, Nigeria’s then-president, Goodluck Jonathan, addressed a crowd of workers in the country’s capital Abuja.  He declared that “the challenge of the country is not poverty, but redistribution of wealth.” The prompt for his comment was a report issued only a few days prior, which labeled Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, as one of only five nations that are home to two-thirds of the world’s population living in extreme poverty. Rejecting the categorization of Nigeria as a poor country, President Jonathan pointed to the country’s Gross Domestic Production (GDP), which he declared was “over half a trillion dollars.” Moreover, the economy, he maintained, was “growing at close to 7 percent.”

It was only a week before the president’s address that the official figure for Nigeria’s GDP had been significantly revised. The first reexamination of the structure of the Nigerian economy since 1990 showed an increase in the country’s 2013 GDP by 89 percent. Scholars were surprised by the dramatic growth in the banking and telecommunications sectors and the significant decline in the relative size of the hydrocarbon sectors.

With little outside recognition, the Nigerian economy had transformed itself in the space of a couple of decades. Once dependent on oil exports, by 2014 the economy had been diversified and was growing rapidly. This was a stark shift from the economy described by IMF observers in 1999, who wrote that “Nigeria’s economic and social development remains far below even the minimum expectations of the population.” In that year, half of Nigeria’s population lived in absolute poverty, the life expectancy was only fifty-two years, and infant mortality was eighty-four out of every 1,000 live births. What more recent calculations of the economy reveal, however, is that Nigeria has not suffered from a lack of long-run growth as many scholars of African development had long assumed. Rather, the problem is that growth has not significantly reduced the rates of poverty—today, over 40 percent of Nigeria’s population lives below the  extreme poverty line.

Reconceptualizing the African tragedy: Since independence, scholars across the political spectrum have long debated the reasons for Africa’s abnormally slow growth. Much of that writing has been characterized by pessimism, but nearly two decades ago, economic historians formed the African Economic History Network in order to challenge the poor quality of data used in narratives about Africa’s economic past, as well as to center Africa’s position in the discipline of economic history. Building on the efforts of this network, Morten Jerven’s new book begins with an assertion that startles our notions of racial hierarchy and global economic history: in the long run, Africa’s rate of economic growth is unexceptional. He notes: More here.

Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Syed Ali Ammaar Jafrey, Syed Hamza Gilani, Mushtaq Siddiqui, Shaheer Alam, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail, Usman Nazir