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date: 22 September 2019

Summary and Keywords

Since independence, African states have been striving for economic development, but relatively few countries have achieved their goal. Between 1970 and 2016, real GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa grew by an annual average of just 0.48%. However, there was a wide range of economic performance across different countries, as well as clear variation in growth rates over time. Countries such as the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Madagascar had, on average, a negative growth rate in terms of real GDP per capita. Meanwhile, countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Swaziland had positive average annual growth rates of at least 3%. The differences in economic growth rates reflect the diversity of economic structures, governance, and political stability across African states. Although deeper economic integration among African countries may work to reduce the large disparities in economic development, any projections must nonetheless recognize that countries will differ in their economic trajectories.

Variation over time is also important. The dominant patterns of economic development in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 1990s on the one hand, and the 1970s and past the 1990s on the other, were quite different, reflecting a long business cycle. If we look solely at economic growth statistics, the 1980s and 1990s can be described as lost decades. On average, real GDP per capita on the continent declined annually by 1.54% and 0.62% in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. By contrast, between 2000 and 2016, real GDP per capita increased by an annual average of 2.13%.

One important debate has focused on whether these shifts are primarily the result of domestic or international factors. Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been blamed for the decline in the economic fortunes of African countries in the 1980s. At the same time, they are praised for pulling many countries out of unsustainable macroeconomic policies. Moreover, a balanced overview of Africa’s development trajectory must conclude that even without major policy shifts such as those brought forth by the SAPs, many countries would still have remained highly dependent on one or just a few commodities, and would therefore have continued to experience wild swings in their business cycles in the absence of international intervention.

The lack of economic diversification of many economies on the continent means that the future is hard to predict. However, the prerequisites for a prosperous Africa are not a mystery—they include good governance, economic diversity, and genuine economic integration.

Keywords: commodity export dependence, corruption perception index, economic integration, GDP per capita, good governance, human development index, Millennium Development Goals, structural adjustment programs, African politics

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