Africa: The Next Twenty Years

What can Africa anticipate over the next twenty years? More of the same? If it is not to be more of the same, what economic and political processes need to change? J. Paul Martin looks into Africa's future and addresses these crucial questions.

Given the political and economic patterns set over the last 60 years, what can Africa expect over the next 20 years? If not more of the same, what needs to be changed?

Sixty years ago, emboldened by such figures as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Leopold Senghor, Africans were enjoying the fresh air and the expectations of independence. The newly independent states boasted new constitutions, new universities and new social and economic plans for growth supported by strong development aid programs and optimistic populations.

Today the atmosphere is much less optimistic. Rather than planning for tomorrow, most Africans, if not also their governments, are more concerned with getting by today. Overseas aid has degenerated into a network of lotteries where African governments and NGOs scramble to fit into funding priorities set by Washington, Brussels and now China and India. Few are the African governments and local NGOs that do not feel dependent on friends from overseas. Foreign direct investment increases, but few governments manage to guide the income into sustainable local social and economic development. Even Africa's civil society, where local initiative, self-help and energy have been the most visible, is denigrated by Africa's intellectuals as being too focused on their international donors rather than on responding to the needs and priorities of African communities. Given the patterns set over the last sixty years and the situation today, what can Africa anticipate over the next twenty years? More of the same? If it is not to be more of the same, what economic and political processes need to change?


The general trajectory of change in Africa over the last sixty years has to a large degree set parameters that will govern what it can expect over the next twenty years. Such a premise provides little to suggest that future political and economic change will come in other than uneven and modest increments. For some countries the change will be progressive, while others may have little to show. Although arbitrary, the lens of the next twenty years is a useful timeframe. It is short enough to be constrained by trends and factors that are already visible. It is also a substantial enough in the sense that in twenty years the Africans born today will be taking on their adult roles. What is the world that Africa's leaders are planning for them? What can be predicted and for what does Africa need to prepare over the next twenty years?

By 2033, it is reasonable to expect that Africa will have become an even more important source of the world's minerals, resulting in a strong, even dominant, presence of large and small, legal and illegal, extractive and agricultural industries, financed largely by external funds and protected by national officials as needed sources of national income. As today, the economic, political, environmental and social impact of these industries will remain problematic. Countries that are truly able to harness the income from these resources in ways that contribute to the general welfare of the country have the chance to be in the progressive scenario. Those that are unable to harness the income and to use it fruitfully will inevitably fall into the regressive segment. As it is also likely that Africa's mineral and agricultural resources sector will be the major source of most governments' revenue in the next twenty years, success or failure in benefiting from these resources will have a serious impact on each government's ability to govern and to provide services to its citizens. Judging by the last twenty years, growth in other economic sectors including, unfortunately, traditional agriculture and especially energy will be modest and will absorb rather than generate national income. International consumer businesses such as Coca-Cola and communications' corporations will continue to find markets in Africa. Other corporations from Brazil, China and India will join them. Some African countries will be successful in developing local industries but even the latter will be susceptible to acquisition by their international counterparts. Even without considering the impact of payments for Africa's international debt, the net result of these trends in both the extractive and the consumer industries will be a continuing flow of wealth (funds and non-renewable raw materials) out of Africa.

Judging by the trends visible today, this macro pattern will do little to change wealth distribution within most states in Africa where the top 1 percent of the population control most of the domestic wealth. Only in a few states such as Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda can the middle class be expected to grow significantly. This growth will depend on diversification within those economies, on the ability of larger segments of the citizenry to earn the income needed to assure improved standards of family life, access to education and healthcare as well as savings for retirement, and thus on their ability to reduce professional brain drain. Good governance will be crucial to all. In spite of current efforts, it is hard to see that poor governance, corruption and identity politics will not continue to play influential roles in the acquisition and distribution of wealth and political influence.

One powerful determinant of Africa's economic and political future will be the capacity of each country to prepare and retain the range of professionals needed to run its key private and public sectors and thus to reduce dependence on international expertise. Building the capacity of the needed indigenous professionals depends on each state's education system and especially on its universities. It is already possible to see a growing gap between those African states such as Ghana that are able to commit major new funds (and greater independence) to the education sector and those that are not making any such commitments. To remain within the progressive segment of the development spectrum, the level of in-country education must increase to provide graduates at the different levels with the skills needed for national development. At the same time, economic planning must open up real entrepreneurial and employment options to reduce both dependence on international personnel and the brain drain.

It is equally reasonable to predict that over the next twenty years, two factors bringing change to social, political and human relationships across Africa will be the continuing growth of civil society organizations and the political presence of women. Gender mainstreaming in government is being promoted by some governments, most recently in Liberia under the leadership of President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Women's organizations in Ghana have successfully lobbied the government to pass strong legislation on domestic violence, and are following through by building partnerships among private and public institutions to enforce the provisions. But there are also many negative societal forces. Violence against women in war has increased. Trafficking of women and children still receives a low priority in government budgets. For their part civil society organizations have expanded their agenda and range of action, moving from cities out into the rural areas. Local human rights groups now seek to build more cooperative relationships with governments, rather than simply confronting them. There is also some evidence to show that civil society has begun to persuade Africa's legislatures and its justice and court systems to assert more independence from the executive branch.

Nearly ten years ago the UN set the Millennium Development Goals, a group of development goals to be achieved by 2015. Now two years away, it is agreed that achieving these goals in Africa is impossible in all but in one or two countries with respect to one or two goals. Once more, promises and optimism have to give way to reality. This time it took less than a decade. This limited achievement has made clear that sustainable development in Africa calls for strategies to address more directly, concurrently and comprehensively all the ongoing major causes of underdevelopment and human rights abuses, notably governance, civil conflicts, corruption, arms, drugs and human trafficking, not to mention other obstacles to social order such as the abysmal conditions of Africa's prisons, its inadequate criminal justice systems, identity politics, failing education and healthcare systems, poor provisions for sanitation and clean water, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other contagious diseases, as well as the many violations of other civil and political rights that undermine fair, non-violent political process. Africa's governments and civil society organizations are now confronting this basket-case scenario more systematically. In the process they are finding forces for change but also major obstacles, all of which have to be addressed if Africa's youth is to look forward to a better tomorrow.


Calls for systemic economic and political change today in Africa appeal to different ideologies and motivations, notably those of human rights, development, pan-Africanism, anti-neocolonialism and nationalism. The ambiguities of these languages were recently captured in the following words by an NGO leader from Liberia: 'Human rights and development discourses today are laced with all kinds of hypocrisy, conditionality, selective enforcement and notions of "Do as I say, not as I do!" European governments and their big brother, USA, see themselves as the defenders and enforcers of human rights standards and often talk to the rest of the world in very condescending terms.' Nevertheless it is the language of rights to which local groups turn to legitimize their agenda in both domestic and international fora. Local civic and human rights organizations increasingly look to the promotion of rights as a step towards the political and economic mobilization of communities. However, outside the meetings of the African Union, most African governments eschew the language of rights, entitlements and empowerment, especially when they talk about their domestic affairs. Rarely is the language of rights to be seen in Africa's primary and secondary school textbooks or even in its university curricula. Governments prefer to use the language of nationalism, while the languages of pan-Africanism and anti-neocolonialism are heard largely within the domains of Africa's intellectuals and some politicians.

Moving beyond language and ideology, if we look for evidence of work for future change, it is to be found in the growth of civil society, the expansion of electronic communications, new attention to education, and the changing partnerships among local and the international political and economic actors. There are certainly many other forces influencing the economic future of Africa, but these merit closer attention as they represent more recent and potent forces of change.

1. The Growth of Civil Society

Over the last twenty years there are two sectors that have grown more rapidly than any other in Africa: civil society and women's organizations in particular, and electronic communications. The growth of both fields has been hugely facilitated by international expertise, resources and networking. The resulting local civil society groups seek to serve needy poor urban and rural communities in many sectors, notably education, healthcare, legal advocacy and lobbying, as well as with respect to safe water, sanitation and personal security. These tasks, however, require specialized knowledge and planning skills as well as the ability to generate the income needed for their sustainability which local groups do not often possess. Local groups are also entering a new stage as they face local strong criticism to the effect that they, based as the most successful tend to be, in the main cities, are more accountable to their international funders than to the local constituencies they serve. The growth of civil society remains uneven. Religious organizations, for example, continue to enjoy strong popular appeal and to provide substantial social services, but show little growth in terms of agency in the society at large. Labor unions have also struggled over the last twenty years. Universities remain largely under the control of government and thus only nominally within the civil society sector. Similarly the media in Africa has to function within varying degrees of government control. Its growth has also been limited. Nevertheless, overall, the size, competence and influence of civil society are growing steadily across Africa.

2. Expansion of Electronic Communications

There have long been iconic photographic images of herd boys in Africa watching their handful of goats. Today, far from any major town, we can see such a herd boy with his five goats and his stick in one hand, but now with a cell-phone in the other. Taxis in Africa rely on the cell-phone for business. Community radios rely on call-ins from cell-phone users. Within the last decade, cell phones have permeated the rural areas of the continent, enabling community radios to become instruments of public debate, social change and even banking. Information is thus circulating more quickly in Africa today than ever before. In the human rights field, advocates are being trained to use video and encryption technologies to collect and report out their evidence of human rights violations.

The communications changes over the last twenty have been so massive that their implications for social policy and planning in the future are hard to predict. African NGOs, for example, now argue that the flow of information to and from the villages needs to be more systematic and be driven more by villagers' needs. They want modern communications technologies to improve the lives of the truly poor and increase their participation in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives. If the pertinent information is to be shared, discussed and evaluated in village meetings, how do rural communities access and use information systems? Local village and community leaders, teachers and religious figures need to be able to select from general information flows those that match the needs of the groups they serve.

Elsewhere in the world the potential of electronic communications has been grasped well by the young. In fact more than Africa's modest television networks and weak print media, new communications technologies are likely to undergo major growth and thus increase their influence on the political and economic development. What role can youth play in this process? Gone are the days in Africa when youth were routinely emancipated with defined roles and responsibilities as adult members of the community through initiation ceremonies and other institutions. Today in Africa many young men and women find little to keep them in their villages. They move to the cities if not to Europe and the United States, depriving local communities of their energy and imagination. Could the ongoing communications revolution change this trend, empower these young people and thus benefit their home communities?

3. Education

Education has long been trumpeted as the generator of the energy and the skills needed for economic and political development in Africa. In practice, over the last sixty years educational projects launched in Africa have had great difficulty in sustaining their goals once external inputs are withdrawn. In the 1960s, for example, promises of universal literacy and free, universal and compulsory primary education were supposed to be achieved by the 1980s. Today adult literacy in Africa is less than 10 percent in Niger and only about 55 percent in a relatively rich country like Nigeria. Only a few universities in Africa enjoy the funding and independence from government control to ensure wide-ranging thinking on the part of their faculty members and students. The net result is that few African countries can train and retain more than a small segment of the cohort of the government, diplomatic, health, educational, business, development and other professionals needed to run the country tomorrow. One exception might be the legal profession, although this has yet to translate into proficient criminal and civil justice systems.

Recognizing the central role that it plays, education has become a particular target for African women's groups. One hears women say that Africa may not change in their lifetimes, but it must in the lifetimes of their children. African women are successfully encouraging impoverished African communities to contribute funds and labor for schools to educate their children. Some international and local development groups in Africa are utilizing traditional and non-formal approaches to capacity building and consciousness-raising. One strategy is the increasing use of theatre and music. Social intervention theatre, for example, is based on the premise that communities must be involved in the planning and implementation of the development projects. The movement uses the language of empowerment that is often seen as subversive by governments. Education remains highly valued but few governments are able to maintain, for example, rural schools that have adequate facilities, qualified teachers and textbooks.

Education is, of course, only one piece in the development equation. Economic development cannot take place without jobs and access to income through commercial and service activities. Only then will a community be able to sustain its economic and political development and the schools and other capacity building needed for economic growth.

4. Changing Development Aid Partnerships

There is a growing realization that the last sixty years of external financial and technical inputs have not paid off as expected. More experts are beginning to believe that many of the inputs have even been detrimental to development. The point is forcefully made in a recent publication by Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo entitled Dead Aid (Penguin Books, 2009). However, the immediate demise of traditional development aid is unlikely. More likely is an adjustment in the balance between external and internal inputs in economic and political development. This re-thinking of internal-external relationships is matched by a pattern of growing number of partnerships across international aid sectors, notably among international NGOs and some governments in the fields of human rights, development, conflict management and the environment. Greater attention is being given to micro financing, community self-help, and adult education. The test will be to see how this new international re-thinking plays out in Africa's villages. If the goal is to strengthen the knowledge base and the ability of the local institutions to operate without external inputs, then the new thinking must also give more priority to local capacity building and thus also to moving funds now being spent in head offices in New York, London, Brussels and Geneva to in-country capacity building. The big change will be the move from aid to foreign direct investment from the private sector in ways that the benefits accrue to the population as a whole. This will be the biggest challenge to Africa's governments, namely how to ensure that their people benefit substantially from these international private sector investments.


1. Recourse to the Use of Force and Violence

While one can be amazed at the resourcefulness of individual Africans and their families as they eke out an existence in the Africa's sprawling urban slums and impoverished villages, one also has to look at the systemic obstacles they face, the ones categorically beyond their individual control. For many, the absence of government security services means having to deal with armed gangs seeking 'protection' taxes. For others, there are the horrors associated with living in regions contested by opposing militaries, both of which expect loyalty and material support. The last three decades have witnessed, even under the rubric of support for economic and political development, a massive inflow of small arms from the industrialized world to virtually all parts of Africa. Apart from the clandestine imports, even the guns sold to governments soon find their way to the black market, and then to rebel groups, mercenaries and criminals, if not also to individual citizens seeking to protect themselves and their families. The net result is not only deaths and injuries, but also protracted civil wars, kidnappings for ransom and the further exploitation of natural resources to pay for more arms and ammunition. Easy access to guns makes them a common recourse for conflict resolution, if not also for political ennui.

Reducing violence in all its forms is major challenge. The continuing substantial legal and illegal importation of small arms to Africa means that threats to personal security are increasing across the continent. In spite of theories of non-violent politics, civil society has yet to develop the strategies needed to diminish force and violence, whether it is exercised by the state or non-state entities. Moreover, Africa is all too familiar with the enormous challenges of building trust and effective public institutions and services after periods of civil conflict. These challenges even include intellectual debates about impunity and forgiveness, but also the practical problem of finding ways to re-educate the young men and women who have been socialized to bullying, insurgency and living by the gun. The net result is that threats to personal security are never far away.

2. The Status of Women

Gender discrimination is to be found worldwide, as is the related phenomenon, domestic violence. In Africa violence against women has recently taken some virulent forms, notably within the context of civil conflicts where rape has been and continues to be used as a weapon of war. In its more traditional forms, gender discrimination in Africa has long been especially problematical in terms of labor distribution within the family. In many parts of Africa, for example, men and women share the work in the fields but all the other domestic tasks, including often distant, daily travel to obtain clean water, fall to the women in both monogamous and polygamous relationships. Analogous patterns of work distribution are to be found in urban life in Africa, with women assuring domestic life, the health and wellbeing of the family, but also often holding down one or more jobs for income to buy the basic necessities for their families. One major negative consequence of this bias is to limit the women's effectiveness as educators of the next generation, all at a time when other traditional educational mechanisms have broken down and the primary and secondary education systems leave much to be desired.

While accounts of rape and other forms of sexual exploitation in Africa, especially in conflict zones, are common, sexual harassment is also visible in daily life in the 'modern sector.' There are, for example, many reports of sexual expectations from women seeking professional advancement and from girls wanting a good grade in class. These practices, where male 'gate-keepers' seek sexual favors, marginalize and undermine the potential contributions of women to society as a whole. This comes at a time when women are becoming more visible on the national political scene as peacemakers and as proponents of social and economic agenda for the population at large.

3. Identity Politics

The 2008 upheavals in Kenya sent a shiver down the spines of even seemingly thriving democracies in Africa. Ghanaians and others worried that it could also happen there. Nationalism, tribalism, pan-Africanism and religion are but some of the potential sources of group identity in Africa. Many citizens in Africa have stories to tell of how government officials favor their own family or ethnic group over others. Such practices associated with identity politics run the danger of igniting or heightening conflicts between one group and another.

Academic studies on the roots of ethnic and religious violence have pointed to diverse causes. Ethnic and religious fractionalization, for example, leads to competition for common resources, not the least of which are land and government appointments. Any perception of gains on the part of the one group quickly leads to fears of their seeking a monopoly of power and wealth in winner-take-all politics. On the other hand family, religious and ethnic loyalties, a common language and history make for easier social mobilization and action. Critical in these circumstances is the existence of bridges or other mediating mechanisms between groups, especially among the leadership, and at the level of professional and business associations. Typically the leaders of major NGOs in Africa come from different segments of their communities. Many have been educated to the point that they have both a sense of being part of a nation and part of a larger movement for social justice. Typically also their work calls upon them to work for fellow citizens who suffer discrimination. During the Kenyan upheavals, local NGOs were very active opposing the violence, but we have yet to see a study of their and the public officials' achievements.

4. Limited Accountability, Transparency and Sustainability

Many countries are in Africa are endowed with valuable oil and minerals. As indicated above, the political and economic well being of these countries, however, will depend on the ability of governments to harness the income from these resources and to meet the needs of their citizens. Harnessing the income depends on many factors. One of the most basic will be the ability of each government to negotiate and monitor contracts and leases that maximize the income to the nation. This will depend in turn on the presence in government of qualified and committed officials able to develop the contracts and the monitoring mechanisms that ensure transparency and the best possible returns for the benefit of the citizenry. Given the high level of dependence on income from natural resources for political development of their countries, local civil society, human rights groups and the media must also develop the capacity to ensure increasing accountability and transparency on the part of government. As is the case of the government officials themselves, such a role calls for specialized training in finance and monitoring, skills that are not easily accessible to these local groups. This need for local monitoring has long been felt by NGOs in Africa. In Guinea, for example, for more than ten years, local groups have been appealing to the international community for the advanced training necessary to enable them to monitor the social and environmental impact of the aluminum industry in their country.

Whether it is the kleptocratic sovereign or the local policeman trying to pay for his child's education by collecting bribes, even after making allowances for different cultural practices, it is hard to see how corruption does not seriously undermine development. The literature and advocacy groups like Transparency International depict corruption as a continent-wide disease. Accountability, transparency, sustainable development and good governance are closely related in the sense that they are mutually reinforcing and necessary. Accountability assures that there is a formal system whereby all actors take responsibility and are held responsible for their contributions. Transparency discourages questionable relationships and accounting. Sustainable development requires planning and implementation that ensures that a given project or institution will be able to stand on its own after external inputs are withdrawn. Good governance requires the institutionalization of all three. These qualities take many forms. Accountability, for example, must be recognized by all the various agencies. It must also be enforced through sanctions when it fails, whether on the part of a public or private official, the ex-patriot development consultant or the NGO vis-à-vis the community it claims to serve.

The literature on accountability, transparency and sustainability is now extensive and need not be recounted here. There is a UN Convention (2005) that emphasizes its criminal nature and calls for worldwide action. Both accountability and sustainability have received extensive attention in UN debates about development. All three are recognized by the international community as critical components of development planning and training. The challenge over the next twenty years will be their enforcement.


African countries face many powerful forces outside their control. In addition to those considered above, there are obviously also climate change and multiple global economic and political forces. The thesis here is that all of them must remain as major active items on the agenda of Africa's governments, regional organizations and civil societies. The reasons are simple: any single one of the obstacles could by itself hamstring development; and each of the above forces for change is a necessary ingredient for progress. Ignored, each has the power to undermine the whole enterprise. Even with attention to all of these sectors, economic and political development over the next twenty years will be uneven and insecure. The bottom line and litmus test, however, will be how African governments maximize, manage and reap the benefits being and to be derived from the exploitation of their natural resources.

The trend that has to be changed at all costs is each country's ability to deal with its own problems and especially the ongoing exploitation of its resources. This can only be achieved through good governance and a corps of professionals and politicians able to assure good governance and to monitor and regulate the wealth generation processes in ways that ensure real benefits to the population as a whole. As can be seen in cases such as oil development in Chad, this cannot be achieved by external organizations such as the World Bank. National control is crucial. Building the corps of these professionals depends substantially on each nation's educational institutions and the creation of living conditions which will encourage young professionals to remain in the country and to be able to educate their children there. The critical education sector will be higher education and its ability to produce creative leaders for all of each nation's social, political and economic sectors. Although quality higher education is not a stand-alone remedy and many other initiatives are necessary, it is certainly an essential component if Africa is to make significant strides in economic and political development. Governments that continue to limit the creativity of their universities will find themselves without the local resources needed to assure themselves and their citizens a comfortable place in the modern world.

J. Paul Martin directs human rights studies at Barnard College and teaches both at Barnard and Columbia.


Africa: The Next Twenty Years

What can Africa anticipate over the next twenty years? More of the same? If it is not to be more of the same, what economic and political processes need to change?