Why are we asking this now? It was Pliny who said, Africa semper aliquid novi – out of Africa there is always something new. In recent decades however the epithet has more routinely been recast as: Out of Africa there is always something bad. That is the impression you get from newspaper reports, at any rate. But just last Monday, the second Ibrahim Index was published and it paints a very different picture.
“People look at headlines from two or three countries and forget there are 55 countries in Africa,” said Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese billionaire philanthropist who has funded a massive annual survey which ranks sub-Saharan African nations according to how well they are governed. “The real story coming out of Africa,” he said at the launch in Addis Ababa, “is that governance performance across a large majority of African countries is improving”.
What does the latest index show?
That governance has improved in almost two-thirds of countries. Some 31 of 48 sub-Saharan nations recorded higher scores than in last year's survey. Mauritius, one of Africa's most stable and prosperous nations, was top with a score of 85.1 out of 100. The rest of the top five were the same as last year: the Seychelles, Cape Verde, Botswana and South Africa all of which scored over 71. South Africa, however, did very badly on the “safety and security” ranking. It is now the seventh most dangerous country in Africa. At the bottom of the league are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Sudan and Angola with Somalia as the worst of the lot.
How reliable is the index?
Fairly. It is compiled by a team from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government with guidance from a panel of independent African academics and business leaders. It assesses governments' performance against 58 different criteria and is more up-to-date than many other indices; its data is just two years old, which is impressive in a continent where data is hard to collect. Moreover the improvements it charts are borne out by hard facts on the ground. The investors responsible for the increased flows of finances into Africa in recent years cite good governance as a key factor, though, of course, there has also been a boom in commodity prices and widescale benefits reaped as a result of the debt relief granted at Gleneagles.
Are its measures of progress realistic?
Yes. It covers five key areas. Peace and Security assess the impact of war and violent crime. The Rule of Law also includes corruption and how transparently a government conducts its financial affairs. Participation and Human Rights looks at everything from free elections to women's rights. Sustainable Economic Opportunity considers how easy it is for ordinary people to make a living. And Human Development covers poverty levels, health and education.
What's the most important factor?
Probably peace and security. At the most dramatic end of the scale is outright war or large-scale insurrection against the state. But in many other countries governments cannot guarantee the personal security of citizens who are prey to mugging, car-jacking, theft, rape and murder on a frightening scale. The index measures everything from the number of armed conflicts to their intensity. It looks at the number of deaths and at how many refugees are created. It assesses the ease with which guns can be obtained and the level of violent crime.
There can be no development without peace, which is why it is no coincidence that the countries at the bottom of the overall index are mired in conflict. And it is why the country with the biggest improvement on last year's index, Liberia, is rising out of the ashes of war under a new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. It has risen five places to 38th with an increase of 10.4 points.
Isn't corruption the real problem?
It is a major issue, but stamping it out requires changes in a wide range of areas. Corruption is part of a wider problem. To flourish a society needs to know that that the law will be upheld, that contracts and property rights will be upheld, that disputes between citizens and the state will be fairly adjudicated and that business regulations will not be an excuse for endless bribes for corrupt officials. That all needs an independent judiciary. In all those categories 29 African countries have this year demonstrated real progress according to the Ibrahim Index.
What about human rights violations?
They are down too, both in the narrow sense of imprisonment of repression by the state, but also in a wider arena. The Index covers free and fair elections and the ability of parliaments to hold government executives to account for their actions. It considers how effective parliamentary oppositions are allowed to be. It monitors a range of civil rights from press freedom to women's rights. It is in these areas that the Index reports the largest number of improvements over last year, with two-thirds of African countries doing better.
What does that matter if the economy is shot?
But it isn't. Both macroeconomic stability and financial integrity are generally improving throughout the continent. A range of indicators – including economic growth, per capita GDP, inflation rates, the reliability of financial institutions and the overall business environment – are on the up in the majority of African countries.
But do the poor benefit?
The chronically poor are always left behind. The elderly, handicapped, tribal peoples, abandoned mothers with large families of kids and those suffering with Aids and other debilitating diseases remain destitute even when economic growth soars or a job creation programme comes to their area. The indicators which paint a picture of the lives of the poorest of the poor show a mixed picture. There are some improvements in life expectancy but children remain widely undernourished. Immunisation is up significantly and more people can get clean drinking water but access to doctors and health workers shows no improvement. There are general increases in the teacher-pupil ratio and a significant rise in the number of girls finishing primary school (probably thanks to debt relief) but increases in literacy among adult women are marginal. What it suggests is that it is the people at the bottom of the heap who continue to suffer most.
So who's right, the optimists or the pessimists? Both. There is clearly a lot left to be done, especially for the very poor. But progress throughout Africa, if you leave aside the countries that generate the big bad headlines, is steady and significant. Perhaps at the moment the optimists have the edge. “Africa is open for business,” Mo Ibrahim concluded in an interview. “Investors should look at our growth. And with the global financial situation the way it is, perhaps their money is safer in Africa than in the US. Ex Africa semper aliquid boni. Is the life of Africa's poor really improving?
Yes * Two-thirds of African nations are better governed than last year. This will eventually help the poor * Violent conflicts are down across the continent and peace is the precursor for economic development * The greatest improvements in Africa over the past year have been in human rights
No The chronically poor have been left behind by improved economic growth which has not trickled down * There are some improvements in life expectancy but many children remain badly undernourished * Access to health workers shows no improvement and increases in literacy in adult women are marginal