Three decades ago the founder of the global-minded Club of Rome wrote a prophetic book. In essence, it forecast that Western technology, communications, investment, and trade would:
* First, break through the Iron Curtain and bring the Soviet bloc into the free world's economy.
* Second, pull Latin America into a growing free-market system.
* Third, include Asia.
* And, finally, draw in sub-Saharan Africa.
The book made misjudgments (e.g., the Asian Tigers roared in before the East bloc and Latin America.) But its central insight about global growth spread by trade, investment, and telecom was correct - except, to date, for Africa.
Overall most of the 43 principal sub-Saharan nations have seen their economies shrink in the quarter century since the first oil shock in 1973. Food production has declined in more than half of the African states. Civil wars persist. Hunger, genocide, and massive refugee problems have accelerated the economic decline.
Several waves of optimism have been dashed. First, that the replacement of strongman "fathers of their countries" meant an end to "one man rule." Second, that aid flowing from superpower competitors in the cold war would create modern economies in strategically located nations. Third, that "breadbasket" lands like Sudan and Zimbabwe would feed the continent. Fourth, that big nations with rich resources - notably Nigeria, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Angola - would get their acts together and lead the region out of poverty and despotism.
Instead, entrepreneurial Nigeria plunged backward into dictatorship and stagnation despite oil riches. Zaire took decades to shuck its embezzling boss. Angola has had trouble moving past its several-times-ended civil war.
As Financial Times analyst Michela Wrong wryly notes, such mineral rich nations gave potential a bad name. Their potential wealth in oil, copper, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, and farmland lies untapped or in the hands of inept, debt-laden state firms. World Bank statistics show Zaire's economy to have plunged back to its 1958 level as population tripled and inflation zoomed to 9,800 percent before settling back to a recent 750 percent. New leader Laurent Kabila and his diverse coalition face a daunting task, especially in view of overblown public expectations.
But, economic successes in South Africa, Botswana, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, and, lately, Uganda and Tanzania indicate the region is not doomed to economic and political purgatory. In fact, considerable evidence indicates this may be a "darkest hour precedes the dawn" situation.
Exhibit A: trade breakthrough. Recently, Washington put on one of its rare bipartisan shows. Clinton team heavyweights and Speaker Newt Gingrich joined to announce the African Growth and Opportunity Act. That's a collection of incentives for increased investment and trade. It asks African states to make private investment easier and curb state monopolies. In return it promises more openness to African imports, incentives for private investors, and aid for improving transport. It turns away from decades of government-to-government aid that did little to create growth or help individuals other than the ruling elite.
Exhibit B: debt relief. Little noticed, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and "Paris Club" of creditor nations last fall started a program to forgive 80 percent or more of debts that have crushed some African nations' growth efforts. First to benefit is Uganda, which not that long ago was pronounced a failed state because of devastation by Idi Amin. Also in line for debt relief because of free market programs: Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Mali. Note that Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia long espoused socialism.
Exhibit C: internal leadership. Despite its many high-profile strongmen, Africa has lacked a visionary leader to inspire others - a Simn Bolvar, Gandhi, or Churchill. Nor has the collective leadership of the Organization of African Unity been of much help in solving collisions between or within member states. Now, South Africa's Nelson Mandela seems willing to try to remedy this shortcoming - witness his attempt to mediate a peaceful end to Congo's civil war. Also important is the candid admission by Tanzania's elder statesman, Julius Nyerere, that a free market welcoming outside investors is more workable than the state ownership he long favored.
What's needed now is for the major European and Asian powers to echo Washington's effort to stimulate investment in return for disbanding state monopolies. Add to that a more concerted push to isolate despots who smother democracy and pervert markets, like Nigeria's Sani Abacha.
After that, it's up to African leaders to follow examples set in South Africa, Botswana, and Uganda. Only then will the long decline turn upward across an undeservedly suffering continent.