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A Raisin in the Sun?

Why should politicians around the world make a real commitment to African development?

April 19, 2003

Why should politicians around the world make a real commitment to African development?

Langston Hughes' famous 1950 poem is about Harlem, but it applies painfully to Africa today.

    What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?

It is, of course, in the United States’ self interest to be concerned about Africa.

Imagine the broad potential of Africa as a source of cultural riches, as well as a thriving market for U.S. exports.

Yet, even if there were no selfish reasons to pay attention to Africa, we should still stand ready to help in the face of so much suffering.

Few people remember, but it was only 40 years ago that Africa followed Asia through decolonization. At the time, Africa was considered the promising continent, while Asia was considered the "basket case."

With Africans' average income at that time tripling that of the Indians and Chinese — and endowed with vast natural resources — Africa was expected to prosper rapidly.

On the other hand, famine and chaos were expected to devastate East and South Asia. However, it has not worked out that way.

The average income in Africa today is near what it was in 1965, while that of the developing countries of East and South Asia has quadrupled.

Although famine has receded as a major threat in Asia, it has grown in Africa. The continent has been ravaged by AIDS and war — and it remains the one large region in the world where the tide of poverty, ignorance and disease has not ebbed.

Between 1965 and 2000, life expectancy in Asia rose — as it did in almost every corner of the globe — from 52 to 66 years. But in Africa, life expectancy has continued to fall — especially in recent years — as AIDS claims more and more victims.

Today, life expectancy in Africa stands at 48 years — which is barely above the 1965 level.

In Botswana, the best-governed and most successful African country before AIDS, life expectancy between 1965 and 1980 rose from 49 to 58 years — before plunging back to 39 in 2000.

In addition, hunger and disease are widespread.

But beneath these immediate, urgent problems, there lurks a challenge at least as dangerous for the long run: education.
Again, Asia is a sobering contrast. Today, Asia has nearly universal primary education.

The percentage of children in secondary education rose between 1980 and 1998 from 37 to 56 percent. And in higher education, it increased from three to eight percent.

On all the education levels, Africa in 1998 was behind the level that Asia reached in 1980 — a full 18 years later. In 1998, as in 1980, nearly a quarter of African children did not attend primary school.

Even today, only about 19% of Africans attend high school, barely half of the Asian level in 1980 — and about 2 percent go on to college.

And this low level — which has roughly doubled since the 1980s — has been accompanied by deterioration in quality.

For example, in Kenya, the money set aside for books during the colonial system of higher education, has been redirected to support more students, but not more books.

Today, most university students studying economics never own and rarely see a textbook. And the stream of Africans pursuing post-graduate degrees in the United States has slowed to barely a trickle.

Yet, one should not underestimate the human potential and innovation at work today in Africa. Imagine the potential of Africa's contribution to art and science — if everyone were well-fed and educated.

On international maps — where a county's size is drawn in proportion to its income — you can see Africa is shrinking, like a raisin in the sun.

Our commitment to African development should be long and steady. It must be more than flashy announcements that boil down to repackaging already committed funds.

We must be prepared to add several billion dollars per year for several decades to the net flow of aid.

And we should remember that collecting the funds required for that purpose are well below the cost of the brief 2003 war against Iraq.

The Africa Millennium Recovery Plan, drawn up by several African presidents, can provide a focus for cooperation and engagement.

The United States, however, should manage its own development contributions. True aid should be a result of tangible goals, with ends monitored carefully.

We do not need new or elaborate goals. Traditional investments, such as clean water for rural and city people, improved and universal education — including health education — and road and port development can make a big contribution to quality of life.

The quid pro quo for our support should be policy reform that increases competition — and makes it easier for businesses to enter and exit the marketplace. Langston Hughes concludes:

    What happens to a dream deferred?
    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load
    Or does it explode?