The African Economy Isn't Actually So Dark

WESTERN perceptions of Africa are outdated and fail to recognize the dramatic changes on the continent.

That's the charge of Edward Jaycox, the World Bank's vice president for Africa. ''There's a political revolution going on all over the continent,'' he says. ''Five years ago only four countries were legitimized by popular multiparty elections ... today, that number is 30. Government monopolies are being destroyed, privatization has grown, and the press is freer.''

But many in the United States and other wealthy countries still see Africa as stuck in abject poverty, notorious for corrupt governments and damaging economic policies. They speak of the 1980s as ''the lost decade'' for the continent.

In many African countries, however, the political changes have improved prospects for economic recovery. Echoing an often-heard World Bank maxim -- democratization breeds economic reform -- Mr. Jaycox predicts a greater ''demand for transparency, accountability, and results,'' from national policymakers.

Despite these strides, it will take a lot more to persuade those with deep pockets to have confidence in the region. ''To the outside world, Africa is still seen as a monolithic problem,'' Jaycox says. It's a view that he rejects, and blames for the negligible foreign investment and falling aid to the region.

During the cold war, ''there was practically no African state that wasn't propped up by the East or West for its legitimacy,'' Jaycox says. ''Every one of those regimes was destabilized in the past five years, and most went the way of free elections.''

The World Bank puts between $2 billion and $4 billion into Africa every year in the form of concessional loans and development-project financing. In May, for example, the bank's board considered funding for water-supply and sanitation improvements in Zambia, secondary education in Nigeria, and agricultural processing in Mali.

Jaycox says there are African success stories, where better governance coupled with the World Bank's investments are paying off in improved living standards.

While aid amounts are atrophying and prospects for foreign direct investment may be limited, local Africans are determined to develop commerce. At the recent African-American Summit in Senegal, for example, African entrepreneurs and public-sector officials learned, among other things, about the newest telecommunications systems and how to finance projects.

According to some African diplomats in Washington, the summit's US sponsors failed to push their African attendees to confront the need for greater democracy and the importance of free-market reforms.

The US sponsors, contend the diplomats, seemed specifically interested in promoting US business interests. Some 14 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's exports flowed to the US in 1993. While the US was the top overseas outlet for the continent's output, it was the third-largest supplier of industrial goods and services to Africa. It is a connection that US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown says can strengthen with US aid, but will thrive only with the engagement of the American private sector.

Slowly, some of Europe's long-standing colonial ties to the continent -- primarily aid-driven in recent years -- are transforming into something more market-driven. A growing number of French firms, for example, are examining opportunities in the 14 ''franc-zone'' countries -- all former French colonies -- where a steep devaluation of the franc has made those countries' commodity exports cheaper and more competitive.

But for the most part, Jaycox says, the world's attention only turns to Africa during times of crisis, such as ethnic wars and famine. He calls the approach ''a very expensive way to deal with issues in Africa -- to wait until it breaks down and go try to clean it up.'' Jaycox issues this warning: ''If in fact we, the world, don't see development in Africa, we're going to see a lot of strife.''

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