Rosier prospects in Africa


LONDON -- Let's imagine what the post-Mobutu Congo could become. It has diamonds, copper and gold. It has rain and sunshine in abundance. It is not, given its immense size, overpopulated. It has wise political leadership, a stable democracy, economic and financial discipline and good governance. It is the heart of Africa, not Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness."

Except for the rain, Botswana could be Congo's twin. (Botswana is a desert country.) In the the 1960s it was one of the poorest African countries, far poorer than Congo was then. Today Botswana is a prosperous middle-income country.

During the 1970s it grew at a world-leading 16 percent a year, and in the 1980s at 11 percent. In the 1990s the worst drought of the century and the collapse of the diamond market hit simultaneously. (Diamonds account for a third of national income.) But Botswana successfully redirected its energy and resources into non-traditional exports -- vehicle assembly, textiles and food processing.

Again the economy is rising, growing at a healthy 6 to 7 percent, with a sizeable current-account surplus, more than $5 billion in official reserves and a stable currency.

Over 30 years, life expectancy, school enrollment and health care have improved dramatically. Botswana is cutting its tax rates, privatizing government departments, eliminating crop subsidies and turning its attention to the plight of rural and low-income urban households.

Botswana could be a model for Laurent Kabila's Congo. His country has as many material resources, and more. There is no economic reason, though there may be political reasons, why Congo shouldn't match Botswana's success. Mr. Kabila's friend and patron, Yoweri Museveni, did as much for Uganda -- once a country ravaged by decades of civil war and corrupt dictatorial ,, leadership, now growing at "tiger" rates, emulating the path of South Korea, which was just as poor as much of Africa when it began its economic takeoff in the 1960s.

On the rise

In truth, a new economic mood is percolating through much of black Africa. Last month the World Bank reported that half of the 48 sub-Saharan African countries had economic growth of 5 percent over the last two years -- a remarkable transformation after so many years of declining growth and economic mismanagement.

World Bank and International Monetary Fund prescriptions on privatization, trade liberalization and freer capital movement, so long derided and ignored, are now honored.

A caution to such optimism is provided in a recent study published by the Washington-based Overseas Development Council, "Agenda for African Economic Renewal." It points out that if economic growth does not accelerate beyond 5 percent a year there will be no visible improvement in the living standards of most Africans until well into the future.

The hurdles still to be traversed range from correct macro-economic policies to secure property rights, effective legal systems and better transport, health and education services. Also needed is a professional civil service and political reform to deal with corruption and government accountability.

Then there is the sore legacy of decades of mismanagement and bad Western banking practices, which loaded many African countries with debt whose interest payments consume every spare penny of the budget.

But there is progress. Democracy and probity are spreading. The industrialized lending countries are starting to ease the squeeze. And many African countries could find the money to pay off much of their debt by more rapid privatization.

Moreover, "slow but steady growth," the study's best prognosis for Africa, is nothing to beashamed of. That was what today's industrialized countries did in the 19th century. Indeed, set against 20 years of African decline, it would be a triumph of recovery.

But why be modest? Botswana, Uganda, Lesotho, Malawi, the Ivory Coast and Angola, with growth rates at East Asian levels, show what is achievable. If I were Mr. Kabila, with a country like the Congo in my hands, I would reach for the sky.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 5/30/97

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