Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

Uganda-gate: Debunking two myths about sub-Saharan Africa

Earlier in the week, news broke that some of Irish overseas development assistance to Uganda had been misappropriated by the Prime Minister’s office. In a Father Ted-style development, it seems that up to €4m of Irish aid ended up in the Prime Minister’s account. A poll taken the next day on had, depressingly, almost half of those voting no to the question “Should Ireland distribute foreign aid while it is in a bailout?”

What was particularly depressing to those who believe that the return on taxpayers’ money when spent on things like malaria nets and primary schooling in sub-Saharan Africa is huge was the nature of the discussion that followed under the poll. Here are some choice comments [if it looks like a typo, there’s an implied (sic.)!]:

  • “I going to be blunt here… Not a single euro more should we give. It is disgraceful pumping money into these warlord run countries when we are in a bailout program.”
  • “But the current situation is simply unsustainable. We are borrowing billions of euro, at a five per cent interest rate, just to hand it over to corrupt foreign heads of state. Madness.”
  • “Do we want to be seen giving money to people who are clearly living in the stone age??I don’t want my money going to these people. I want it going to my people, Irish people, for health,education, job creation and infrastructure!!!”
  • “Africa is mineral rich but kept in poor by foreign bankers and Corporations who suck each country dry and prop up evil corrupt regimes.”

I used to work in Irish Aid, as it happens, although only briefly, so I won’t go into the ins and outs of something I’m not current on. However, there are a number of misconceptions about sub-Saharan Africa revealed in these comments that I think would be useful and relatively straightforward to dispel.

I’ll take two: the belief that the continent is beyond fixing (aka that Western so-called aid is keeping these countries poor); and that the political system in sub-Saharan African is corrupt and/or authoritarian.

Myth #1: Africa’s rulers are corrupt war-mongering dictators

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to forty-plus countries (the birth of Namibia, Eritrea and South Sudan, among others, mean the number is not constant). Thanks to the Polity Project, which quantitatively assesses the democratic/authoritarian nature of every government from 1800 on, it is possible to see whether Africa remains home to dictators or instead whether it is a hotbed of democracy.

The Polity score ranks every country from -10 (full-blow dictatorship) to +10 (full-blown democracy), with special indicators for where government has collapsed (due to foreign occupation or civil war). The graph below shows for 1975, 1995 and 2011, the percentage of countries in Africa that were autocratic (a score of -6 or less), autocratic-leaning (-1 to -5), democratic-leaning (zero to 5) and democratic (+6 or more), as well as the worst off, those without a government.

Proportion of sub-Saharan countries by regime type, 1975-2011

What’s pretty clear is that the trend is a positive one. In 1975, six out of every seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa was a dictatorship. Now, there are only two autocratic countries on the continent, Swaziland and Eritrea.

In 1975, there were only two islands of democracy, literally in the case of Mauritius, 500 miles off the coast of Madagascar (the other being Botswana). Now there are 19 democracies and 11 other countries that could be described as democratic-leaning.

No-one is for a minute arguing that the political system in Africa is perfect – democracies can be just as corrupt as autocracies in certain circumstances – but the idea that there is some sort of warlord class of dictator still ruling over the world’s second most populous continent is ridiculously uninformed.

Myth #2: The African economy is a basket case with no hope

The other clear implication that one gets from reading comments such as those on’s poll is that Africa is an economic no-hoper, as poor today as it has ever been. This is a tough one for NGOs and Governments to counteract. Make the case too strongly that there have been returns on the investment of aid and people start to question whether it is needed anymore.

But I think those involved in the aid industry do have a case to answer for in not showing the progress that has been made. The graph below shows average growth rates and also income per head in Africa at the end of each five-year period (population-weighted). The source is the IMF World Economic Outlook, the primary repository of comparable international statistics over time.

Average income and economic growth (% annual) in sub-Saharan Africa, 1980-2017

Average annual income in Africa has risen from less than $900 in 1980 to $2,500 now and is set to increase to over $3,100 in the next five years. Even with growth slowing to about 5% per annum, by the late 2020s, the average increase in an African’s income in three years will be greater than their entire income was in the late 1970s.

Which brings us on to growth. GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa averaged 2.5% in the twenty years to 2000, barely enough to cover population growth. Since then, population growth has slowed while economic growth has accelerated. The average rate of growth in the period 2000-2017 is expected to be 6% – with the final few years actually slightly slower than the period 2000-2012.

So again, no-one is arguing that Africa is perfect or even that there are no chronic situations in Africa. But those who assert that money put into Africa is money wasted, because ‘clearly the continent is a basket case (possibly under the thumb of the West)’ again make their case devoid of all evidence.

Indeed, what’s ironic is that those who believe these countries are in the Stone Age are the ones themselves who have rather archaic opinions of what is and is not happening in Africa.

  • Brian O'Donovan ,

    Good post Ronan. It is amazing how quickly the world is changing, but hos slowly people’s stereotypes change.

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      • Paul Mara ,

        Thanks for that Ronan. Great to get some perspective on the matter.

        • Karl ,

          Hi Ronan,
          Regarding myth #2, while we can all see that the average income is increasing in absolute terms, is it not relative income that is important here?
          Comparing GDP per capita of all country groups listed in the IMF database, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown least since 1980 with the 2011 average annual income only 2.73 times that of 1980.
          Compared to the rest of the world, it is still getting poorer.


          • Ronan Lyons ,

            Hi Karl,
            Thanks for your comment. Again, it depends on your perspective. Firstly, where our goals are absolute and not relative, e.g. reduce malnutrition or the proportion of children dying under the age of 5 or those living on less than $1 a day (roughly subsistence), getting richer at all is a good thing.

            Ultimately, though, humans are relative beings and judge things by comparison, so yes, comparing 1980 to 2010, the gap between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world has grown. However, I would suggest breaking that gap down into ten-year periods – sub-Saharan Africa has been the fastest growing region on the planet outside of China for the last decade. The 1980s were a terrible decade economically and politically for Africa. The 1990s were a time of transition (as per the political stats above). It seems the period from 2000 on is one where Africa is reaping some of the benefits of these changes.

            That is my take at any rate. And again is not at all an argument for backing away from continuing our high-returns investments on the continent.

            • Sarah ,

              • Stephen ,

                Homer Simpson put it best
                “Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.”

                Physiologists have shown that giving to charity is not a logical decision, but an emotive one. Fact with rarely change peoples minds once they’ve had those markers put in place.

                I’m not saying the above is useless, but it is the reason the charities run with pictures of starving or dying children instead of graphs showing the return on investment for your donated money.

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