01 / 05
What Can We Expect from Africa in the 2020s?

Blog Post | Economic Growth

What Can We Expect from Africa in the 2020s?

Africa is no longer a "hopeless continent" by any means.

Following the dawn of a new decade, a flurry of optimistic articles were written about the incredible progress humanity has made since the start of the new millennium and the expected milestones in human flourishing that our species will likely achieve by 2030. As several authors have highlighted, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and illiteracy have all fallen to historic lows, and our species is more peaceful, smarter, and technologically advanced than ever before.

However, by looking at the overall trends in global well-being, it can be difficult to determine what life is actually like, and indeed, what the future holds for the world’s poorest people. Fortunately, the forecast for the world’s most impoverished region, sub-Saharan Africa, is a bright one.

Back in 2000, The Economist described Africa as the “hopeless continent,” adding that the “new millennium has brought more disaster than hope to Africa.” Thankfully, in the 20 years since The Economist’s somber diagnosis, much has changed.

In fact, over the last twenty years, the gross domestic product (GDP) of sub-Saharan Africa has tripled, and average per capita incomes, adjusted for inflation and purchasing power, have more than doubled. Beyond economic measurements, infant mortality rates have almost halved and literacy rates have increased by 8 percent. That may not sound like much, but this increase means that 136 million more Africans can read and write since the year 2000.

Over the same period, life expectancy in the region has increased by more than 10 years— meaning, that for every day that went by, life expectancy increased by a whopping 12 hours. For many people, this increase would be the difference between knowing your grandchildren or dying before they were born.

It’s important to consider that much of the progress in Africa has only occurred since the late 1990s and has largely coincided with Africa’s new, more liberalized economy. As Marian Tupy, editor of HumanProgress.org, notes, “for much of their post-colonial history, African governments have imposed central control over their economies.” Measures such as expropriation of private land, price and wage controls, state-owned enterprises that prevented competition, and more, were all too common.

But, according to Tupy, “that began to change after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Socialism lost much of its appeal and the Soviet Union, which bankrolled and protected many African dictatorships, fell apart.” Between 1996 and 2016, economic freedom in the region, as measured by the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, rose from 5.1 out of 10 to 6.15.

It is, of course, hard to predict the future of a region that contains 46 countries and a population of over 1 billion people, but looking at the trends of the past couple of decades is a good place to start. As Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, recently noted, “of course, doomsayers will say that past results are no guarantee of future performance. They are technically correct…but the past does surely act as a reasonable guide.”

Even with no further economic liberalization, sub-Saharan Africa will likely continue to grow rapidly over the next decade.

Today, average income in the region is equal to that of the average Western European living in the year 1900 — roughly $4,000 per year. By 2030, based on current growth trends, it can be reasonably expected that incomes in sub-Saharan Africa will be equal to that of the average Western European in 1934 (i.e., approximately $5,000 per year). A sum of $5,000 per year is not much to live on, but the fact that sub-Saharan Africa will likely achieve the same income growth over a 10-year period as Western Europe did over 34 years, is remarkable.

If these trends continue, life expectancy in the region will increase by another five years by 2030, and the region’s GDP will also likely surpass $2.2 trillion, making it equal to the eighth-largest economy in the world today.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that over the next decade, some African governments won’t impose barriers that prohibit trade, close borders, forgo property rights, or intervene more heavily in their economies —  all of which would go some way to reverse current progress. However, the good news is that due to the creation of a new continent-wide free trade deal, it seems that the economic liberalization policies that have underpinned much of Africa’s growth over the last 20 years, will likely accelerate in the coming decade.

On July 1, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is currently in its operational phase, will be fully implemented. The AfCFTA, which was first adopted by the African Union (AU) in March of 2018, has been signed by all but one of the AU’s 55-member states, with 29 nations having ratified the agreement through their domestic legislatures.

Upon its introduction, the newly-minted free trade area will immediately abolish 90 percent of tariffs on goods traded between member states and, by the end of 2030, a further 7 percent of tariffs that remain on “sensitive products” will be removed. That’s an excellent move given that the United Nations has estimated that AfCFTA could increase intra-African trade by upward of 50 percent within just a few years. After the final tariffs are removed, that number will likely double — no doubt adding billions to the region’s economy.

Throughout the 2020’s, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to continue to be one of the world’s fastest growing regions. Average incomes will rise, life expectancy will increase, and infant mortality rates will continue to plummet. With the introduction of the AfCFTA later this year, the speed of progress might even increase.

Africa has a long way to go to catch up with the West, but we should be thankful that the once-dubbed “hopeless continent” is hopeless no more.

A version of this article appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Food Prices

Eight Centuries of Increasing Food Abundance in England: Summary

Basic food commodities have become far cheaper, and virtually all workers have reaped the benefits.

Human progress is often incremental, but many positive trends have become clearly visible over time. One of these trends is the growing abundance of food. My recent series of articles looked at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present. It covered dairy (milk, butter, and cheese), meat (pork, mutton, and beef), baking (flour, sugar, and eggs), and grains (wheat, rice and oats).

Professor Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, has conducted extensive research into the economic history of England. As part of his research into the condition of the working class in England, Clark has developed an extensive data set containing nominal prices of goods and nominal wages of skilled and unskilled workers in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Note: Clark assumes a 10-hour workday before 1720.

Using the concept of time prices developed by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley, we calculated the number of hours that someone must work to earn enough money to buy a particular food item.

In this analysis, Clark’s nominal prices of food items served as the nominator, and nominal hourly wages, which come from Clark and from the UK Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, served as the denominator.

Figure 1: Compound annual growth rates for skilled and unskilled workers

For unskilled laborers, the compound annual growth rate of all the items analyzed increased from 0.19 percent on average before the 1860s (going back to 1200s for some commodities) to 1.38 percent since the 1860s.

Similarly, for skilled laborers, the compound annual growth rate increased from 0.17 percent on average before the 1860s (going back to 1200s for some commodities) to 1.37 percent since the 1860s.

Over the course of this series, we showed how workers have benefited hugely from the growth in wages since the Industrial Revolution. However, this growth has accelerated since the end of World War II. When basic food commodities became cheaper, all workers saw the benefits.

Many compare their circumstances in the present to others who are relatively better off. However, compared to almost any period in history, everyone has benefited as basic commodities became far more affordable.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 42

David Ansara: Unlocking Africa’s Potential

David Ansara, the Chief Executive of the Free Market Foundation, a South African think tank, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss progress and problems in Africa.