Science - May 30, 2013

Opportunities for the new Africa

Good prospects for the African continent.
'High food prices are a blessing in disguise.'

Ewout Frankema: ‘Urbanization is good for Africa’.
Africa is changing fundamentally and at a high speed. That's one reason to be optimistic concerning the future of the continent, conĀ­tended Professor Ewout Frankema of Rural and Environmental History in his inaugural lecture on 23 May. He explained why a Green Revolution like that in Asia and in South America had not taken off in Africa. One of the major reasons, according to Frankema, is that African countries have weak governments.
Has that changed?
'Yes. The governments are getting to grips with the nation-state better. After a phase of decline and violent conflicts, more stable governments have arisen in many African countries. There are fewer civil wars than 20 years ago. The debt situation of the average African state is much better than that of many European countries. Economic policy has changed. Exchange rates are more in keeping with economic reality and the tax system is developing.'
The population in Africa is large. Instead of seeing this as a problem, you consider it as an opportunity. Why?
'State formation in Africa has always been beset with difficulties. The reasons include the low population pressure and high mobility of the people. Nomadic tribes are difficult to incorporate into a state structure. The population of Africa has quadrupled in the last 50 years. This growth has developed together with urbanization. Many more people live in permanent dwellings. And the city is the basis of a state. This development is a real break with the past. An about-turn. As a result, Africa has changed fundamentally.'
So the enormous population growth is Africa's salvation?
'I don't see this as a salvation but as a solution to a historical problem. Moreover, urbanization has created a big demand. Africa has become a market as a result, and money starts flowing in. People want to invest, in the countryside as well. This is a known fact. The rise of cities was the driving force behind the economic boom in our country too.'
You called rising world food prices a 'blessing in disguise'.  Why?
'The increase in world food prices affects mainly poor city dwellers. This stirs up unrest, which frightens political leaders. Government leaders are forced to face the hard facts. Countries have therefore been driven to produce more food, and to invest in their own agricultural development.'
Nevertheless, your optimism does not apply to the whole of Africa. You predict growing inequality among countries, with all the implications that entails. That does not sound very promising.
'It's better to have increasing inequality among regions than stagnation across board. Africa-wide, the situation looks better than 20 years ago. But differences will increase and these will lead to tensions and migration. It has always been like that, though. Movement and relocation of big groups of people is something typical of Africa. It is difficult to predict how the states will react. We're going to find out in the course of this century.'