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world wide wednesdays :: africa's all-stars

who do you think is faring best?
discussions about africa can veer into depressing/ hopeless pretty quickly. it's home to most of the world's poorest countries, its most repressive dictatorships and its most corrupt governments. given an area so huge and diverse, making substantive, progressive changes to enhance the lives of people there seems impossible, because the task is too big. because trying to think about it all at once is too big a task to take on. [side note :: and chances are that you're underestimating the size of the task, because you're underestimating the size of africa.]

but rather than engage in a typical first world hand-wringing session and talking about everything that we need to do to improve the situation in africa [which is a perfectly valid discussion to have, it's just that we're not going to have it today], i want to take a few minutes and call attention to the continental success stories. because there are countries who are overcoming adversity and creating pretty amazing places to live.

africa is the world's major centre of growth: of the top twenty fastest-growing national populations, fifteen are in africa [per the c.i.a. world factbook] and eleven of the world's twenty fastest-growing economies [source; the world fact book numbers are about the same, although some of the countries are different, and not all countries reported for 2014.]. of course, population and gdp growth don't necessarily make for a great place to live. a quickly increasing birth rate can [and often does] indicate a lack of access to employment and health care for women, a high infant mortality rate and widespread poverty. a growing economy means there is more money coming into government coffers, but it doesn't mean that the governed are enjoying a better life. more important is the question of who is taking care of their poor, educating their young, providing a balance between security and freedom to allow citizens to go about their lives without fear. i was about to add "planning for their future" to that list, but then i realised that doing the other things is planning for the future. and, yes, there are countries in africa that are doing these things very well, it's just that they're not the countries you here a lot about on the news. here's a few of them:

seriously sexy tunisia
tunisia ::

the last few years have not been kind to north africa. in point of fact, a lot of the past twenty or thirty years have not been kind to people living in north africa, but there is a tendency for outsiders to assume that the security and stability afforded by a dictatorship means that things are going ok. in 2011, tunisia kick-started the arab spring by overthrowing their government and, in fact, they've been able to manage the transition surprisingly well. that's not entirely surprising, because even before its move to democracy, tunisia was a well-developed country with a strong infrastructure and a relatively high literacy rate and strong trade ties to europe. it also has the advantage of a very homogenous population, with over 98% of its citizens identifying as arabs. [side note :: tunisian arabs are actually descended from a mix of true arabs, berbers- who still have a small, separate population in the country- and turks, but over time, the differences between them have largely been eliminated through intermarriage. there are small populations of christians and jews who have a long history in the area and who have a harmonious relationship with the arab/ muslim majority.]

after years of government control, human rights advocacy groups, legal defense groups, women's groups and others have operated with a great deal more freedom. although there remains a significant gap in men's and women's literacy rates [which drags tunisia's overall rate down to 88%- 95% of men and 80% of women can read and write by the age of fifteen], the new government has officially committed the country to gender equality. the annual "freedom of the press" report rated tunisia second in the north africa/ middle eastern region for 2014- only israel was rated higher. although there have been attacks from extremist groups, islamist terrorism has not had nearly the effect in tunisia that it has in other north and central african countries. tunisia's murder rate is far below the world average: it's not significantly more dangerous than canada or finland. the nascent democracy has also worked to help almost two hundred thousand refugees from neighbouring libya, whose revolution has been significantly more challenging.

there remains room for improvement in a few key areas. the economist intelligence unit's democracy index ranks tunisia as a "flawed democracy". while that's the second highest rank, tunisia is near the bottom of the group [although a lot better than they would have been before].lgbtq rights have not been improved since the democratic uprising and according to some reports, have gone backwards, because the elected government has actually taken to enforcing laws against homosexuality, whereas the previous government tended to turn a blind eye. income inequality has also been an ongoing problem and while tunisia is far from the worst in this regard, it's even farther from the best. unemployment- one of the major irritants that led to the revolution- remains stubbornly high at just over 15%. and while they might have the free-est press in the region, they're still considered only to have partial press freedom. [side note :: they're not in terrible company with that ranking. south korea, india, brazil and italy are all judged as "partly free", as is the cradle of democracy, greece, whose freedom score was slightly worse than tunisia's.]

overall, tunisia is emerging as the success story of the arab spring, even though everyone forgets that they started it. there is little reason to think that they won't continue to build on what they have.

mauritius: it pretty much looks like a tropical paradise
mauritius and seychelles ::

i'm mentioning these two island nations together because they have a similar history that makes them distinct from other places in africa: both were uninhabited until quite recently and while they were colonised, the current population is descended from people who arrived with or after colonisation. both are notable for having a high portion of citizens of mixed racial background: about 70% of seychellois have at least two distinct cultures in their history; mauritius has a population that is predominantly of east indian descent, but a quarter of its citizens are creole.

both countries have moved from agrarian economies to service-based ones and are ranked among the best on the continent in terms of their human development index [behind libya and just ahead of tunisia]. seychelles is the wealthiest country in africa in terms of gdp, while mauritius is fifth [as of 2012]. they also have excellent, modern infrastructures, which makes it easy to keep growing. there aren't significant human rights issues in either country, and both are extremely safe. [side note :: seychelles actually looks more violent than it is, with a murder rate 50% higher than the world average, but this is one of those cases where a small population means that every death has a significant impact on the crime rate. the total number of murders per year in the country is in the single digits. mauritius' murder rate is a little higher than tunisia's, but less than half of the worldwide average.]

there is a plausible argument for not including either of these countries in an examination of africa at all. culturally, both have strong links to india as well as africa [in the 1980s, south africa and india served as backers for anti- and pro-government movements in seychelles]. of course, you could apply the cultural argument just as easily to north africa, which is vastly different than central and sub-saharan africa. but mauritius and seychelles are different in other ways as well. although both were colonised, the land was not taken from a people who were already there. the british took over both countries [which were actually considered just one country] in 1810 and while there were slaves used in both places, most of the people who came [including black african workers who arrived after 1835, when slavery was outlawed] did so of their own free will and were afforded some social mobility. aside from making for a less painful history, this also meant that racial groups got comfortable living side by side, starting from a more balanced playing field than was found in continental africa.

neither country had to fight for its independence [britain was content to let both go and even gave mauritius a little push]. neither country has had a civil war or uprising since becoming independent. perhaps most significantly, neither has been targeted by large multinationals seeking to exploit vast resources. mauritius and seychelles are among africas wealthiest, safest and most developed countries because they're not very much like africa at all.

still, i think it's worth mentioning these countries for no other reason than that it serves as a reminder that the continent is more diverse, than we're given to believe. and just because they haven't had things as bad as other areas doesn't mean that the two island powerhouses don't have contributions to make to the growth of the continent. they've been successful with minimal resources and having to import a large number of basics.

and for that matter, there's still a lot that these nations have to learn from their african neighbours, because things are not as idyllic as they seem at first blush. both countries have a literacy rate of around 90%, which might sound good, but it isn't, especially. given the relative ease of offering education over a tiny area, they should rate better than brazil, but don't. given the political stability, they should rate better than palestine, but don't. mauritius has an unemployment rate of over 20%, which would normally be associated with economies in severe recession. mauritius scores well in both the democracy and free press index, but seychelles' press only gets a "partly free" rating [and it's score is considerably worse than tunisia's]. so things are pretty good, but they seem to be stagnating at that point.

accra by night
ghana ::

unlike mauritius and seychelles, ghana has virtually all the stereotypical problems of an african nation: poverty is a huge problem, both in the sense that gdp per person is incredibly low and that income distribution is fairly poor [although better than hong kong, brazil, russia and tunisia and roughly the same as much wealthier mauritius]. political stability has been an ongoing problem, and while the country has transitioned to democracy, that's only been the case in the 21st century. it's still listed as a "flawed democracy" [slightly less flawed than tunisia], largely because corruption continues to be a problem. international drug cartels use ghana as a way station to move drugs around the world, but there is little being done, again because of internal corruption. the country's lucrative gold mining industry has been tainted with allegations that they use child labour.

so with all those problems, what's ghana doing on this list? well, when you look at all the problems that it has, it's pretty remarkable what ghana has been able to accomplish.

although it's literacy rate is only a little over 70%, it has one of  the highest rates of school enrollment in all of africa [for both boys and girls]. it currently plows about 8% of the national budget into education, which is more than double any of the countries mentioned previously in this piece. with an incredibly young population- the median age is just a little over twenty- ghana has a lot to gain from increasing literacy and education and they're making all the right moves.

ghana also rates incredibly well in terms of freedom of the press. if you evaluate the health of a democracy by how free people are to share information about the government and to offer criticism of the government, ghana is way ahead of countries with a much greater tradition of democracy. its overall score on the press freedom index is one of the best in africa, and not a lot worse than the united states.

although poverty and crime tend to go hand-in-hand, ghana is a lot safer than you would think. it's murder rate is just about exactly the world average, which means it's not crime-free by any means, but it's much safer than popular vacation spots like bermuda, jamaica and mexico. that's especially encouraging when you consider the heavy drug trade.

bill gates once described ghana's universal health care system as the best in africa. although accessibility can get tricky in the countryside, there are more than 200 hospitals and every citizen has a right to health care. in fact, the system is drawing so-called "health tourists". that's quite an accomplishment for a system that's only twelve years old. indeed, improvements in life expectancy and infant mortality have been seen every year, and services have been expanded every year.

but perhaps nothing is so indicative of ghana's canny orientation towards the future than their investment in high technology. they've stated that they want to become a tech hub for africa and they have been taking some major steps to make that happen. a liberal telecommunications policy and a political commitment to using the sector both for internal growth [there are plans to expand e-learning to increase accessibility of education] and foreign investment. the country ranks 121st in terms of land line telephone distribution, but 42nd in terms of mobile phones. 80% of the country has a mobile and most use them daily. in the last year, ghana has laid 600km of terrestrial cable and launched two 2.6ghz lte networks. dropifi, a ghanaian start-up, has become a worldwide player in customer service software, securing funding from silicon valley investors and gaining over 6,000 customers in 30 countries.

ghana has problems. big problems. but no country seems to be making the sort of swift, smart progress towards overcoming them. [side note :: it's worth mentioning that ghana's capital, accra, is rated extremely highly among african cities. this article rates it second most liveable on the continent.]

small but mighty gabarone, botswana
botswana ::

this tiny country tucked in the middle of southern africa has quietly been doing things very right since becoming independent in 1966. although listed as a "flawed democracy", they rate better than any african country except mauritius and have maintained stable democratically elected governments during their half-century of indepedence. if you're counting, that would make them the longest standing democracy in africa. [side note :: for perspective, botswana's "flawed democracy" scores between those of belgium and italy.]

and what a job they've done with the place! in the mid-60s, botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average income of around $70/ year. since then, botswana has been the fastest growing economy in the world, averaging close to 10% growth per annum from 1966-1999. income distribution is still problematic, but growth of that sort has meant a significant increase in the standard of living for people throughout the country. indeed, the average standard of living is now similar to that of mexico and turkey. only five countries in africa- libya, tunisia, algeria, mauritius and seychelles- have a higher development index and none of them are in the notoriously impoverished sub-saharan region. and, yes, despite some lean times in the early part of this century, botswana is continuing to improve every year.

although its economy has been heavily dependent on mining, especially diamonds, botswana has been making plans for diversification. it's working to build tourism and to transition from mining diamonds to processing them for the entire region. [debeers is moving some of its business from london to the botswana capital of gabarone.] but one of their most promising sectors is quite predictable in light of their recent history: banking and finance. after all, botswana is an icon of prudent financial management. aside from their remarkable growth, they have an incredibly low debt-to-gdp ratio [one of the lowest in the world] and they are back to running a moderate budget surplus. their banking system is refreshingly transparent and liberal enough to excite worldwide banking groups, who rank botswana as the lowest risk investment in all of africa. [side note :: botswana diamonds are not "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds". the industry there has none of the violent connotations of those from further north and west. the industry did suffer with the bad publicity, but it's really just another example of how different africa can be from one reason to another. botswana has no history of internal strife, warlords or ethnic violence. it's a remarkably peaceful country.]

so are there no problems there? are you kidding? there are lots of problems. women are in danger of being sold into human trafficking rings and while the government is making some moves to crack down on this, they're being pretty slow about it. despite its long-standing democratic tradition, there is some concern that botswana are starting to crack down on press freedoms. its telecommunications infrastructure is weak [especially when we've just looked at what ghana has been able to do with much less money], which will increasingly hinder its growth. while it's generally touted as being safe, botswana is pretty damn violent. the murder rate is much higher than any other countries on this list and while it doesn't compete with south africa, it's more of a problem than a lot of press reports would lead you to believe.

but one particularly acute problem for botswana is the environment. the kalahari desert, which already occupies much of the country, is expanding and drought conditions are spreading. botswana needs to plan now for how they will address this problem, or all their fine work will fall apart.

there you have it. this isn't a complete list, of course, but it is a diverse collection of african success stories that deserve more attention. i'd like to add that i'm not implying that these countries are doing everything right- i think i've made that clear, but just in case, i'm saying it again. what they do show is that there are lots of areas of africa that are finding success in different ways, all over the continent. and that's something worth keeping in mind when it seems like it's all bad news.

p.s. :: i relied heavily on certain sources for this, such as the press freedom report, the united nations human development index, the cia world factbook, and the democracy index. feel free to check them out if you'd like more information!

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