Can Africa Prosper?

'Third World' once meant 'mired in poverty.' Parts of Asia and Latin America left that behind. So can Africa.

With the discrediting of communism as a route to prosperity, the world turned to variants of the democratic, competitive, private enterprise economy.

Thatcherism/Reaganism spread. Then it got turned out of office in favor of Clinton/Blairism. The Asian Tigers and the ABC nations of South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) adopted the bureaucracy-cleansing message of Thatcherism. Now, those areas of the old third world may follow the first world's lead and institutionalize free-market democracy as the credo of both sides of their political spectrums.

Already they have gone a long way toward making the "third-world bloc" obsolete. But that historic change will not be complete until the 43 principal nations of sub-Saharan Africa join the march out of poverty, boss rule, and entrenched bureaucracies.

On that subject, there's good news and worrisome news.

First, the good news: Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa has averaged about 4 percent in the past two years, some 2 percent better than in the previous decade. That means that production is outstripping population growth, a prerequisite for prosperity.

Then the bad news: Most of these nations have seen their economies shrink in the quarter century since the 1973 oil shock. So today's growth builds on a shrunken base.

President Clinton's current trip through Africa points up another problem. He is avoiding Nigeria, Zaire, Zimbabwe, and Angola - states that in the past were praised as resource-rich engines capable of pulling their neighbors into faster growth. As one analyst noted, those nations - with their stores of oil, copper, diamonds, and rich soil - give "potential" a bad name. Instead of leading Africa toward democratic prosperity they are variously mired in autocratic rule, the aftermath of civil war, and corruption.

This is but the latest disappointment. First, the promise of decolonization in the '50s and '60s was dashed when too many "fathers of their countries" settled into one-man rule. Second, big-project, rich-nation aid failed to create grass-roots growth. Third, so-called "breadbasket states" like Sudan and Zimbabwe failed to feed their regions when drought led to famine. Fourth, resource states, especially giant Nigeria, subverted both democracy and economic growth.

But there are signs of turnaround gathering strength. And they are manifest in more than that promising 4 percent economic growth rate. In three stops on Mr. Clinton's itinerary - South Africa, Uganda, and Botswana - leaders of stature are making a reality of both democracy and free-market economics. It's significant that Nelson Mandela, the great international hero of the continent, has made an effort to help solve conflicts in other parts of the continent. It's also important that Mandela's successors seem firmly wedded to both democracy and free- market growth.

On the aid-giving side there is also hope. The World Bank has moved away from its wasteful big-project mentality. Under current president James Wolfensohn, it has begun retraining its lending officials to spend time living at the grass-roots level. That's intended to make sure that development projects benefit the broad populace, not bosses and nepotists.

There's new bipartisan support in the US Congress for aiding investment in, and imports from, Africa.

Such moves will help bring growth and jobs to the earnest millions whose hopes have so often been dashed. But for that progress to last, follow-up on trade and investment must persist. It shouldn't fade after a touring American speechmaker goes home.

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