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Shanta Devarajan's blog

Africa as a BRIC

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My colleague and good friend, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, gave an inspiring speech at Harvard where she described Africa as the next BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China).  Everything she says in the speech is music to my ears (confession—I provided some background materials to her staff)—that Africa’s growth prospects are strong, that reforms seem to have taken hold—and her idea of African Development Bonds is innovative and worthy of discussion.
 
My only concern is the labeling of Africa as the next BRIC.  First, Africa is not a country, whereas each of the BRICs is.  Africa is 47 countries, some of which are quite small (20 countries have populations less than 5 million).  The distinguishing feature of the BRICs is that they are both middle-income and large.  So it’s not clear how any individual African country can aspire to being a BRIC. Countries such as Malaysia or Chile may be more appropriate models for most African countries.

Varieties of African successes

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Tolstoy notwithstanding, the 20 African success stories described in the booklet “Yes, Africa Can” show that success comes in many different forms.  Broadly speaking, the cases fall into three categories:

- Success from removing an existing, major distortion.  The best example is Ghana’s cocoa sector, which was destroyed by the hyperinflation and overvalued exchange rate in the early 1980s.  When the exchange rate regime was liberalized and the economy stabilized, cocoa exports boomed (and continue to grow).  Similar examples include Rwanda’s coffee sector and Kenya’s fertilizer use.  Africa’s mobile phone revolution, too, is an example of the government’s stepping out of the way—in this case by deregulating the telecommunications sector—and letting the private sector jump in. 

Raising the Volume on 'Quiet Corruption'

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Photo: Arne Hoel

In Uganda, teachers in public primary schools are absent 27 percent of the time. In Chad, less than one percent of the non-wage recurrent expenditures reaches primary health clinics.  In West Africa, about half the fertilizer is diluted before it reaches the farmer. 

More cell phones than toilets

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An article in yesterday’s New York Times observes that, with the number of mobile subscriptions exceeding five billion, more people today have access to a cell phone than to a clean toilet.  Leaving aside the relative value of these two appliances, the surge in cell phones in Africa—some 94 percent of urban Africans are near a GSM signal—is transforming the continent.  Farmers in Niger use cell phones to find out which market is giving the best price; people in Kenya pay their bills and send money home using M-Pesa.

Africa and the Millennium Development Goals

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Social media as an accountability tool

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From the Africa Progress Panel’s latest bulletin:

At the [Pan Africa Media Summit], Uganda's Minister for Information and National Guidance, Kabakumba Labwoni Masiko, was asked a question about Uganda's proposed media regulations and the moderator did not let the Minister take the question and ensured the session stayed on topic. The discussion immediately shifted online as attendees began to tweet about the incident.

It’s clear that Africans are increasingly using social media as an accountability tool.

Lumps of coal or a boost to development?

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Driving at night in Cameroon some years ago, I saw schoolchildren sitting under the streetlights doing their homework—because they had no electricity at home.  Today 560 million Africans live without access to electricity.  No country in the world has advanced economically without adequate power supply.

Electricity is essential not just to power factories and offices, but to ensure that milk and drugs are transported safely, and that kids—especially those in rural areas who don’t even have streetlights—get an education.

Economics and science meet in early childhood development

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Economists are skeptical bunch, but they seem convinced of the value of interventions in early childhood (0-6 years) and, conversely, the multiple, long-term and often irreversible effects of the failure to provide infants with nutrition, health care and stimulation. 

For instance, Norbert Schady and Chris Paxson’s found that whereas at age 3 all children (from a sample in Ecuador) had the same vocabulary score, by age 6, children from the poorest quartile scored 50 percent of those from the richest quartile.

Meanwhile, scientists studying the development of the human brain (and body) are reaching the same conclusion. 

In a fascinating presentation, Jack Shonkoff describes the process of brain development that is interrupted, sometimes permanently, by adversity in early childhood.  Overproduction of hormones associated with stress can leave toxic effects. 

He also shows how human contact (as opposed to contact with inanimate objects or no contact) can significantly improve a child’s cognitive development.  A group of pre-schoolers were exposed to a nanny who spoke to them in Chinese for a few hours a week; in a couple of years the children were speaking fluent Chinese.  Another group was exposed to a high-quality video in Chinese, but they didn’t develop any speaking ability in the language.

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