In terms of living standards, Africa has been rated as the poorest part of the world since the year 2010. It is home to the majority of those living in poverty, meaning those who survive on less than $1 per day. It is estimated that 47 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population lived in poverty in 2008, according to a 2012 United Nations study.

In an interview, the deputy director of the Africa Program, Richard Downie, discussed the current and future state of the African economy.

What exactly do you do at the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies)?

RD: I’m deputy director of the Africa Program. I conduct research on U.S. foreign policy issues and interests in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In your opinion, why is Africa so poor?

RD: First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that Africa is riding the wave of a prolonged period of economic growth. So there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. But it’s true that many Africans remain poor. There are many reasons for this, but I would argue that the most important one is poor governance. While governance standards are slowly improving, a minority of African leaders remain more interested in lining their own pockets than providing for their people. This is a particular problem in countries with rich endowments of natural resources. Unfortunately, the revenues from oil and other lucrative resources end up funding the lavish lifestyles of politically-connected elites in the capital city rather than helping to lift a broader mass of people out of poverty.

What factors have contributed to Africa’s economic state and how could they have been avoided?

RD: Poor governance is the most important one. The main responsibility lies squarely with African governments themselves. But international donors have not been resolute in putting pressure on African governments to do better. Too often, they’ve been content to disburse the money and consider their job done. In some countries, this approach amounts to complicity in funding corruption.

What things can be done to pull Africa out of poverty?

RD: We should support initiatives that provide African citizens with the tools to hold their governments to better standards of behavior. This would include offering training, education, and assistance to—among others—civil society organizations, the media, legislatures, judiciaries, and political parties.  If empowered, these institutions can play an important watchdog role in exposing corruption and building a constituency for good governance.

However, we shouldn’t place the entire onus on Africans. There are things that Western companies and institutions can do to promote good governance in Africa. One of the most important is to do something to track down and stop illicit financial outflows from Africa, which dwarf the amount of aid that flows into the continent.

Do you believe that foreign aid helps or hurts the African economy?

RD: It can help, if it’s given in a responsible, targeted way, accompanied by strong accountability mechanisms. But it won’t be—and shouldn’t be—the main way to lift Africans out of poverty. Many African countries have enough resources to address the needs of their people. It’s what they do with these resources that matters.

In addition, the transformative impact of trade and investment will be more important than aid in delivering economic growth to Africa in the long-term. Again, the key factor is how the wealth is used.

Is there anything else you think would be useful in regards to the African economy and poverty reduction?

RD: As you know, Africa is incredibly diverse, with some very good performers, some very bad ones, and a lot somewhere in the middle. It’s important not to adopt blanket approaches to the continent because what works in one place might not be relevant or successful in the next.  In general, I think it’s important when thinking about our relations with Africa to look beyond the traditional donor-recipient dynamic.  We need a more mature relationship with Africa that takes account of the improving economic landscape on the continent–a relationship of equals that is grounded in enhanced trade and investment.

– Samantha Davis

Sources: CSIS.orgWorldHunger.org
Photo: ChildSob