African Successes

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NBER Africa Project
Co-Chairs:   Sebastian Edwards, Simon Johnson, and David N. Weil

Download the highlights of the findings of the project here: NBER African Successes brochure.

The NBER Africa Project was launched in Fall 2007 to study economic success stories in Africa. The primary goal of the project is to support high quality research that identifies and analyzes African economic development successes, ultimately to inform policy making at both the national and international levels. Of particular interest are the positive economic experiences in a number of African countries over the last decade. What are the roots of these developments? To what extent are they sustainable and transferable to other African countries?

Another goal of the project is to strengthen the cadre of researchers working on African development, and build linkages between developed country researchers and their counterparts in Africa. We particularly want non-African specialists to learn more about the continent, in the hope of making serious study of Africa a more mainstream endeavor for applied economics.

The third and final goal of the project is to systematize available data on Africa. The NBER will establish a website as an inventory and clearinghouse of economic data on Africa, and will host datasets in cases where existing public data is not otherwise available online.

The group will meet once yearly in either Cambridge or Africa, culminating in a policy-oriented conference in Africa in summer 2011, drawing on our best work.

This 6-year project has been supported by a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Origins of the Project

Conventional wisdom has long been negative on Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is commonly regarded as destined to remain poor, suffer from recurrent crises, and endure ill health either because of its geography (including its unique disease burden), or its ethnolinguistic fractionalization (leading to repeated conflicts), or its long-standing corruption. The precise mechanisms vary, but a standard argument has been that Africa is doomed to stagnate due to deep-rooted problems that are hard to fix.

There is no doubt that the inhabitants of Africa have done badly, on average and for the most part, not just over the past 20-40 years, but at least since the beginning of industrialization. It is also indisputable that much of Africa is currently doing quite well - for the region south of the Sahara, growth in total GDP will likely exceed 5 percent in 2007 for the fourth straight year, and per capita growth is recently in the range of 3.5-3.9 percent.1 At the same time, Africa is also making progress in terms of improving key public goods, particularly demonstrating the effectiveness of providing antiretroviral drugs.

Could this be the beginning of either extended growth or a sustained improvement in health, or both, in some parts of Africa? Is there a broad process underway, including manufacturing, agriculture, and services (e.g., tourism) or just progress in a few isolated sectors (e.g., commodities)? Is better performance solely the outcome of high prices for raw materials, coupled with - in some instances - recovery from civil conflict? Where exactly are lives improving? What has placed countries on a path to stronger public finances and reduced inflation? Do bottlenecks in transportation, or public service issues like poor water quality, create obstacles that will quickly become constraints? What can we learn by comparing countries where growth and better health have persisted with countries where gains have proved short-lived?

1. These are aggregate estimates from the IMF's World Economic Outlook, which treat sub-Saharan Africa as one country. Alternative ways of calculating total growth (e.g., unweighted averages across countries) give lower estimates, around 3-4 percent per annum for total GDP growth; this is still high compared with Africa's record.

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