Africa is fortunate. Unlike more industrialized countries and even some industrializing countries like China, Africa is endowed with a much younger population. This could offer a tremendous comparative advantage in years to come that could propel the continent forward as a dynamic and productive engine of growth for the entire world. As elucidated by the UNFPA, “A window of economic and social growth occurs when the working age population becomes larger than people of non-working age…” making significantly higher growth rates possible as “the state faces fewer costs associated with children and the elderly”. But for Africa to realize this advantage, it needs two things: investment to create good jobs, and the young people with the skills to fill them.
According to the United Nations, persons between 15 and 24 comprise a fifth of the world’s population with the vast majority living in developing countries . But, at present in Africa, this cohort accounts for almost two thirds of the unemployed. While there has been no shortage of initiatives to tackle the youth “issue”, these have been at the social margin with mixed results. Policy reforms and donor support have included both supply and demand side activities, mostly directed to investment in public services complimentary to the private sector which, while necessary, have not been sufficient.
Conventional wisdom holds that Sub-Saharan African farmers use few modern inputs despite the fact that most growth-inducing and poverty-reducing agricultural growth in the region is expected to come largely from expanded use of inputs that embody improved technologies, particularly improved seed, fertilizers and other agro-chemicals, machinery, and irrigation. Yet following several years of high food prices, concerted policy efforts to intensify fertilizer and hybrid seed use, and increased public and private investment in agriculture, how low is modern input use in Africa really?
Recently, while reviewing a document, I came across a statistic about age dependency* in the Republic of Mauritius. Mauritius already had an age dependency ratio of 10.9 in 2010 and this is projected to rise to 25 by 2030 and 37 by 2050, which is at par with many East Asian economies. Aging issues in Europe and parts of Asia have already become an economic and fiscal policy concern over the last few years and will remain so for the foreseeable future, could it also become a problem for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) sooner than realized?
With 43 percent of the population below the age of 15 and only three percent above the age of 65, Sub-Saharan Africa is a predominantly young continent. The problems emanating from an ageing population, such as rising age dependency ratios and increasing health care costs, are far over the horizon as far as the continent is concerned. However, this may not remain so for long and definitely not for all the countries. Let me explain why.
The quest for development effectiveness has been a learning process, both conceptually and empirically. One of the important outcomes of the process has been the emphasis on the notion that sustainable economic growth must be a precondition for poverty reduction. Structural fiscal policies which aim to shape the supply side of the economy to generate growth and structural transformation are critical. They complement private investment through the provision of public goods such as public infrastructure or the education of the workforce. But the question still remains: will public investment in infrastructure be sufficient for unleashing faster economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa?
The literature on growth convergence and divergence is vast and deep. Some have argued that divergence is persistent. Lant Pritchett in his paper, “Divergence, Big Time” has argued that backwardness appeared to carry severe disadvantages that generated long-term divergence between growth in per capita incomes of developing countries compared to rich countries. Others have found evidence in favor of convergence. Arvind Subramanian, in his paper, “The hyperglobalization of Trade and its Future”, has argued in favor of convergence, since the number of developing countries experiencing catch-up has more than trebled (from 21 to 75 countries) and the rate of average catch-up has doubled from 1.5 percent per year to over 3 percent. However, what has been overlooked in this debate is the role that agriculture, manufacturing and services have played in growth convergence/divergence. Which of these sectors have played a bigger role in growth convergence?
Following the launch of the World Development Report (WDR) 2014, Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development, various team members have been traveling to different countries to present its findings. I recently joined other team members in a visit to Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa, with a stop in the middle in London and Oxford.
One thing that struck me was how relevant the topic of risk management is for many countries. The importance of risk management seemed immediately apparent to many participants in our discussions. Indeed, many participants gave examples of risk management measures that have been practiced in their cultures for generations (such as storing grain in African villages), or linked messages in our Report to common sayings – for example, as Professor Awad from the American University in Cairo told us, our message on the importance of saving in good times for the bad times has a direct parallel in the old Arabic adage, “to keep a white coin for a black day”.
My experiences with field work thus far have been nothing if not adventurous. I seem to attract broken glass – a rock the size of a small coconut crashing through my 3rd floor window in Zanzibar, for instance, or the windows of my taxi being broken with baseball bats by an armed mob in Mali. Just the other day, my boss and I came within inches of dying in a fiery plane crash – we were on our way back to the main island of Zanzibar from Pemba island in a tiny 12-seater Soviet-era plane, and were just about to land in a strong crosswind when the engine on my side failed. We managed to land, somehow, and taxied to a stop right there on the runway to wait for a vehicle (ironically, it ended up being an ambulance) to take us to the terminal.