New findings from the Afrobarometer, based on surveys conducted in an unprecedented 34 African countries between October 2011 and June 2013,1 reveal widespread dissatisfaction with current economic conditions despite a decade of strong growth. Africans overwhelmingly reject their governments' management of their economies, giving failing marks for job creation, improving the living standards of the poor, and narrowing the gaps between the rich and poor.
Economic growth appears to benefit only a few, according to the ordinary people who participated in Afrobarometer's surveys. Growing economies are not creating enough jobs, or making life significantly better for Africa's poor. Glowing GDP growth figures might therefore offer little solace to people without jobs or those mired in poverty. Popular opinion is thus increasingly out of sync with the 'Africa Rising' narrative that has been gaining traction among government officials and international investors.
Key Findings: Africa Rising?
Written off as 'The Hopeless Continent' 13 years ago by The Economist, Africa has since confounded skeptics, becoming the world's fastest growing region.2 Annual GDP growth on the continent averaged 4.8% over the past decade (2002-11)3, leading the publication to acknowledge its misdiagnosis in December 2011, this time tagging Africa as 'The Hopeful Continent'. An abundance of upbeat macroeconomic statistics has made Africa a new darling of portfolio investors.
This decisive shift in perceptions of Africa by the international investor community is a significant achievement. Stereotypes about a region or a continent can be difficult to change, even when they contradict measureable indicators, such as GDP growth, but the growing acceptance of the 'Africa
Rising' narrative represents just such a transformation. Yet to sustain this rising optimism, ordinary Africans must share in the benefits of growth along with those in boardrooms in global capitals. A growing, resurgent Africa should, first and foremost, benefit those that live in it.
The Afrobarometer's data on popular perceptions about the condition of national economies, and the effectiveness of governments' efforts to manage them, reveal a wide gap in perceptions between ordinary Africans and the global economic community. In particular:
- Across 34 countries a majority (53%) rate the current condition of their national economy as 'fairly' or 'very bad', while just 29% offer a positive assessment. Negative assessments outnumber positive reviews in 26 of 34 countries. The only notable exceptions are Namibia, Zambia and Algeria.
- Just one in three Africans (31%) think the condition of their national economies has improved in the past year, compared to 38% who say things have gotten worse.
- Similarly, 32% say their own personal living conditions have improved in the past year, compared to 33% who say they have gotten worse (34% saw no change). In addition, many individuals still experience regular shortages of basic necessities; these rates of 'lived poverty' remain essentially unchanged.
- Africans give their governments failing marks for economic management (56% say they are doing 'fairly' or 'very badly'), improving the living standards of the poor (69% fairly/very badly), creating jobs (71% fairly/very badly), and narrowing income gaps (76% fairly/very badly).
- Many Africans nonetheless express optimism about the future: 57% expect the economy to be better in a year.
- At the regional level, West Africa tends to be the most positive and optimistic region, while East Africans are consistently the most negative, and the least optimistic about the future.
Popular Perspectives on the State of the Economy
Across 34 countries a majority of Africans (53%) rate the condition of their national economies as either 'fairly' or 'very bad', compared to just 29% who rate them positively (and 16% who say they are 'neither good nor bad'). Majorities in 19 countries, and pluralities in 26, indicated that their domestic economies were in a bad state, including four countries where three-quarters or more of the population feel this way. Majorities say their countries' economies are good in just three countries: Namibia (62% fairly/very good), Zambia (54%) and Algeria (53%).
Among the five countries with the lowest ratings, two – Egypt and Tunisia – recently experienced an overthrow of government as a part of the 'Arab Spring'. The other three – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – have all sustained high levels of growth in the past decade, especially Tanzania (7.0%) and Uganda (6.9%).
Negative responses in excess of 60% were also reported in fast-growing West African states like Nigeria and Ghana, both of which also enjoyed high annual growth rates over the past decade (6.8% in Ghana, 8.8% in Nigeria).
In Southern Africa, two of the region's economic stalwarts, Botswana and South Africa, have also enjoyed solid, steady growth albeit on a somewhat
more modest scale (at 4.4% and 3.6%, respectively). But they likewise generate more negative responses from their citizens than positive ones: 43% of Batswana and 47% of South Africans consider their economies to be in a bad state, compared to just 22% and 32%, respectively, who are more positive.
When asked to compare their country's present economic condition to a year previously, only one third (31%) report improvements consistent with the 'Africa rising' narrative. A plurality (38%) instead report that their country is doing 'worse' or 'much worse' than a year ago, while 29% saw no change. In no country did a majority report improving economic conditions.
Respondents in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Mali, Benin, and Ghana expressed greater satisfaction with the economy than people in other countries, with more than 40% indicating that the country's economic circumstances were 'better' or 'much better' than they had been 12 months earlier. With the exception of Benin and Mali, these countries had all achieved growth rates in excess of 5% between 2002 and 2011. But the five countries most likely to report decline again included Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda and Kenya, now joined by Sudan, and several of these have enjoyed similar growth rates (4.8% in Egypt, 3.9% in Tunisia, 6.9% in Uganda, 4.2% in Kenya, and 6.5% in Sudan).
In South Africa, the public is roughly evenly divided: one-third of respondents (33%) indicate that the economy has gotten worse, and 30% say it has improved, while 36% see no change. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, after several years of suffering under the burden of international economic sanctions, the signing of the Global Political Agreement between Zanu-PF and the MDC in 2008 paved the way for political stability, which has had a marked impact on Zimbabwe's growth trajectory, albeit from a low base. While a plurality of Zimbabwean respondents (42%) said that the country's economic situation remained unchanged, those who said the situation is improving (34%) outnumbered those who reported worsening conditions (23%).
Africans express optimism about the future. Asked whether they expected their economies to be better or worse in 12 months time, a solid majority (57%) said conditions would improve, compared with just 21% who anticipate decline and 12% who expect no change. Only 10% are unwilling to venture a guess ('don't know').
Algerians are the most optimistic, with 80% anticipating improving conditions. In general, the same countries that gave the most negative ratings of their current economic situation are also more pessimistic about the future. Tanzanian, Ugandan, Egyptian, Kenyan and Sudanese respondents are among the most skeptical about the prospects for improvement in their countries' economic fortunes. In fact, Tanzania and Uganda are the only countries where majorities expect things to get worse; Egypt, Kenya, Sudan and Mauritius are the only other countries where pluralities anticipate decline rather than progress. In contrast, six West African countries (Nigeria, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Cape Verde, Senegal, and Ghana), count amongst the ten most optimistic states. Mozambique is the only Southern African country in this group.
Evaluations of Personal Economic Conditions
The ability to live a life of material dignity plays a critical role in determining how citizens evaluate the state and economic conditions. Moreover, political stability and continuing economic growth are only likely to be sustainable if citizens feel that they are materially secure, or at least see a real prospect of improved living conditions.
Many Africans do not yet feel a sense of material security. Nearly half (48%) say their personal living conditions are 'fairly' or 'very bad', compared to 31% who feel more secure ('fairly' or 'very good'). One in five (21%) are ambivalent; perhaps these people are in transition from harder times to a more secure status, but do not yet feel confident in their circumstances.
Zambians and Liberians are most positive about their personal living conditions, with 56% and 50%, respectively, rating their situation as 'very' or 'fairly good'. Considering that both countries are rated by UNDP as having 'low human development'4 these ratings might seem surprisingly positive. But individuals' own assessments of their personal living conditions are by their nature subjective – based on comparison to one's previous status, to the conditions of others, to current expectations and hopes for the future, and to concrete changes in access to health care, education or other services.
Countries with low scores on the Human Development Index (HDI) but rapid improvements in quality of life may therefore have more upbeat evaluations of personal living conditions than those with higher HDI scores, but where progress has stalled or occurs at a slower pace than in the past.
Zambia and Liberia have experienced high levels of growth over the past decade (5.8% and 6.2%5 per annum, respectively), but especially in a country such as Liberia, which has been ravaged by war for protracted periods, the experience of peace, and the related economic benefits that it brings, were likely a significant contributing factor to this result. Other countries with relatively high 'good' ratings on personal living conditions include Mauritius (47% positive), Namibia (46%), Nigeria (42%), and South Africa (41%).
In contrast, even though Botswana is regarded globally as a star performer, 57% of Batswana describe their living conditions as being fairly or very bad, compared to a mere 17% who give good ratings. This might be attributed to high levels of income inequality in the country, although South Africa and Namibia have comparable inequality figures, but somewhat more content citizens. Among the other worst performers, Tanzania and Kenya again feature prominently, as does Egypt, which at the time of the survey was undergoing profound political change, largely as a result of the economic marginalisation of ordinary citizens.
A sense of relative well-being also matters. Asked how their personal living conditions compared to those of others in their country, respondents were roughly equally divided, with 34% describing themselves as worse off, 36% as the same, and 27% as better off than others. This suggests that people generally have a good sense of their position relative to others in their country. The public is even more evenly divided on the question of whether they personally are making progress: 32% rate their personal living conditions as better compared with one year ago, 34% as the same, and 33% as worse.
Many are optimistic about the future, however: 60% expect their own situation to be 'better' or 'much better' in a year's time. The ten most optimistic countries, where large majorities expect a brighter future, are all located in West and North Africa, including Benin (87% positive), Nigeria (85%), and Mali (82%). In sharp contrast, all four East African countries (Burundi (41%), Kenya (36%), Uganda (30%) and Tanzania (23%)) are among the most negative, joined by Egypt (33%).
These findings are consistent with related results on levels of 'lived poverty'6 across Africa. Based on respondents' own reports of how often they go without basic necessities such as food, water, and medical treatment, as well as cash income, it is evident that large numbers of Africans still face significant hardship. Approximately 20% go without food, water and medical care on a frequent basis, and roughly 50% experiencing such shortages at least occasionally. In 16 countries where the extent of lived poverty has been tracked for a decade (2002-2012), there is little overall change; although a few countries have recorded improvements, a similar number have witnessed declines. The overall finding is that levels of poverty have been stagnant, rather than declining as some official statistics – and high growth rates – might suggest.
Popular Perspectives on Government Management of the Economy
Another reason people may be less sanguine than economists about the state of their national economies may relate to their perspectives on the performance of government, as well as imbalances in the distribution of the benefits of growth. Governments get extremely poor ratings for their handling of the economy. Large majorities say that their governments are doing 'fairly' or 'very badly' at managing the economy (56% negative ratings), improving the living standards of the poor (69%), creating jobs (71%) and reducing the income gap between the rich and poor (76%).
Jobs are crucial for an improvement in the livelihoods of ordinary citizens, and it is clear that people are dissatisfied with their governments' attempts to create employment. Majorities – often large ones – in every country except Malawi provide negative evaluations of their governments' efforts (and even in Malawi a plurality does so). In Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 80% or more offer negative assessments, and many other countries follow close behind.
In South Africa, where more than a quarter of the workforce is unemployed according to official calculations7, 77% of respondents report that the government is failing in its efforts to get citizens to work. Amidst such high unemployment levels and their impact on income inequality (South Africa has a Gini-coefficient of 0.70, one of the highest in the world), the government's perceived inability to address the problem of job creation has contributed to rising protests, some of which have directly challenged the authority of the state.
Even higher numbers give their governments poor marks for their efforts to reduce the income gap between rich and poor. There is a clear disconnect between the glowing reports of impressive GDP growth across much of the continent, and Africans' own reports of the economic hardships they still confront in their daily lives. These negative ratings of government performance on poverty, jobs, and income equality may be at the root of that disconnect.
If economic growth is being driven by sectors that create limited employment, and the benefits of growth accrue only to a few, then glowing GDP growth figures will offer little solace to those that want to escape poverty. Moreover, if growth exacerbates social inequalities, the outcome may be increasing political instability. The growing protest trend in South Africa may be one example of just such causes and effects. This is a lesson that many fast-growing African economies will do well to learn. If the proceeds of growth are not shared equitably through society, the impact of rapid economic expansion may ultimately become more destructive than good for a society.