Optimism In Africa

A recent Gallup poll found that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most optimistic region in the world. Obviously confused by a result so counter popular perceptions, Gallup speculated as to the cause of such a strange result, concluding that “optimism may be more widespread in these countries simply because people cannot imagine that their lives could get any worse.”

Mike Mieson on Why Dev recently posted a great critique of that explanation, using Gallup’s data and some insight from the World Bank to depict a much more hearty explanation than this “well it can’t get worse” rationale.

Much of his explanation rests on trends of economic growth and strides in health that have been observed throughout Africa during the decade. Most of the nations that top the list of most optimistic countries, Mieson notes, have experienced periods of high GDP growth in the last five years as well as reductions in their maternal mortality rates.

I think Mieson hit the nail on the head as far as explaining the greatest contributors to this pattern of optimism in Africa. That being said, I think there is still something missing from his analysis.

The specific case of Senegal is instructive. There, a 2% growth rate and minimal reduction in maternal mortality rate do not seem to be sufficient enough to warrant Senegal’s place as the 9th most optimistic nation on the face of this Earth (especially when one considers the fact that Senegal shares this planet with nations like Turkmenistan that have experienced growth of about 20% over the last 5 years). Clearly some other mechanism is at work.

I would add to Mieson’s evaluation a third major contributing factor to Sub-Saharan Africa’s overwhelming optimism; improvements in governance.

This additional factor can help to explain Senegal’s optimism. The last decade has been characterized by some serious advancements in the legitimacy of that nation’s democracy. That is in no small part thanks to a growing youth social movement led by Y’en A Marre (Fed Up), a rag-tag assembly of reformist rappers and journalists. Y’en A Marre gained public support during the 2012 election by helping to dethrone then President Abdoulaye Wade, in favour of his former prime minister, Macky Sall. Turning down high profile government appointments following the election of Sall, Y’en A Marre has thus far been committed to building a Senegalese civil society and breaking down old procedures of reciprocity.

Shortly after losing power, it became clear that Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade and a high minister during his father’s 12 year rule, had been stealing state funds in an embezzlement scheme of quite shocking proportions (the charges add up to about $1.4 billion). Many Senegalese have been surprised to see the trial proceed with what seems to be an intent to punish the politician to the full extent of his crime. It appears Karim Wade will serve some serious time, and rightfully so.

Both of these trends certainly give Senegalese citizens reason for a bit of hope. There remains some well-warranted distaste for the political system. A common joke in Senegal combines the French word for politician (politicien) and dog (chien) into “politichien,” to form a little less than subtle political play on words [Ed: see ‘Politricks’]. That being said, the last decade has seen the ousting of an unpopular President, and the imprisonment of a corrupt politician who likely thought himself above the law; both certainly reasons for hope.

Improvements in government help to explain the data beyond Senegal as well. A recent study using 57 criteria including measures of security, rule of law, and transparency found that governments have been improving in the vast majority (about two thirds) of the countries on the continent. Certainly this plays a part in the continent’s optimism.

Alternatively, factoring in government can also help to explain some of the less optimistic nations on the African continent. In a Pew survey that also evaluated optimism across the globe, Egypt was ranked as the least optimistic nation of the African countries surveyed. Political turmoil there, following the Coup d’Etat that ousted President Morsi, can certainly go a long way in explaining some of that nation’s pessimism.

Cleary government has a role to play in shaping the average African’s expectations for the future.

In a continent too often associated with corrupt officials and autocratic sensibilities, some governments are slowly reforming for the better. As a result Africans are feeling particularly positive about their future prospects, and that of their children. Citizens are noticing positive changes on their continent. It’s time the folks over at Gallup do too.