Amid Global Gloom, Good News from Africa

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Africa is widely regarded as a world leader by measure of basket-case symptoms — war, disease, famine and humanitarian disaster. The continent has a greater share of its people mired in poverty than any other, and it hosts the world's two greatest humanitarian crises, Darfur and Somalia. So it may come as a bit of a surprise to many that much of Africa is doing rather nicely, in some cases recording healthier economic expansion than nations in the industrialized world. Even amid the financial meltdown in the West and dire predictions of a global recession, the International Monetary Fund estimates that Africa will post economic growth of 6.5% this year, although the world credit crisis could trim that to 5%. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that a larger share of the money coming into Africa since 2006 has been investment by entrepreneurs seeking profit rather than aid.

More evidence of Africa turning the corner came Monday, in the form of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's finding that governance is improving in 31 out of 48 sub-Saharan African countries. Even more astonishing, the measure of good governance showing most improvement, on a continent notorious for tyrants and bloodshed, was human rights. "Obscured by many of the headlines of the past few months, the real story coming out of Africa is that governance performance across a large majority of African countries is improving," said Ibrahim, the billionaire boss of Celtel, a pan-African mobile phone giant, at a press conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Ibrahim inaugurated his foundation last year to promote good governance in Africa.

"According to this comprehensive analysis, progress is being made across the continent against a range of key governance indicators," the foundations annual survey reported. Indeed, some of Africa's brightest hopes are those that until recently had been some of its most depressing stories. Several of the continent's fastest-growing economies are former war zones, such as Angola, Mozambique and Liberia, and — with Angola a notable exception — many of those are also showing most improvement in governance. The index assesses national governments against 57 criteria divided into five broad categories: safety and security; rule of law, transparency and corruption; participation and human rights; sustainable economic opportunity; and human development. Most improved over the past year, for example, was Liberia, which lost more than 250,000 people in two civil wars between 1989 and 2003, but this year rose six places on the governance ranking, to 38th. At the top of the table, meanwhile, were the perennial good performers of Africa: in order, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Cape Verde, Botswana and South Africa, whose economy is by far the largest in Africa and whose democracy is the biggest, although the country is afflicted by rampant violent crime.

It was Ibrahim's experiences as an entrepreneur in Africa that convinced him to set up his foundation and create a $5 million annual prize for the African leader who best personifies responsible and credible government, which he saw as the key to African development. So why are things changing now? "[As] John Githongo [Kenya's former anticorruption czar] says, 'The democracy genie is out of the bottle,' " notes Hania Farhan, the foundation's director of research. "There will be violent ructions and eruptions, like Kenya or Zimbabwe or Nigeria, but the trend is there, and it is remarkable. Africans want their rights and, increasingly, they are getting them."

Although the idea of an African renaissance of good governance and economic development had been championed by the likes of South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki and other veterans of the struggle to end white rule on the continent, Farhan argues that it's precisely because the liberation-era movements are on the wane — as South Africa's African National Congress seemed to be last week, amid a very public schism — that governance is improving. "Those movements used to say, We have the right to stay in power because we are a liberation movement," she says. Across the continent, the liberation movements produced many of the stereotypical African Big Men who ran their countries as a personal fiefdom, basing their power less on popular support than on outside assistance, particularly in the Cold War era, when both the U.S. and the Soviets propped up any number of dictatorial regimes. That dynamic ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and today "there's a new generation of Africans who are now saying, 'No — show us what you can deliver,' " says Farhan. "They are getting their message across. You find autocrats are reincarnating themselves as democrats. They are increasingly no longer in control. It's really interesting. There's a new mood sweeping Africa."

(Click here for images of Africa by young African photographers.)