Research on Africa

Project that Originated in the Early 2000s Yielded

Four Volumes of Research on African Successes

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The NBER Africa Project was conceived in the early 2000s and undertaken from 2007 to 2014 to study economic success stories in Africa. The primary goal of the project was to support high quality research that identified and analyzed African economic development successes, ultimately to inform policy making at both the national and international levels. Of particular interest were the positive economic experiences in a number of African countries over the previous decade. What were the roots of these developments? To what extent were they sustainable and transferable to other African countries?

Another goal of the project was to strengthen the cadre of researchers working on African development, and build linkages between developed country researchers and their counterparts in Africa. We particularly wanted non-African specialists to learn more about the continent, in the hope of making serious study of Africa a more mainstream endeavor for applied economics.

The third and final goal of the project was to systematize available data on Africa. The NBER established a website as an inventory and clearinghouse of economic data on Africa, available at the Portal of Public-Use Datasets on Sub-Saharan Africa.

The group met at annual conferences in either Cambridge or Africa, culminating in a policy-oriented conference in Africa in 2012.

This project was supported by a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and guided by an advisory committee.

Origins of the Project

Conventional wisdom has long been negative on Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is commonly regarded as destined to remain poor, suffer from recurrent crises, and endure ill health either because of its geography (including its unique disease burden), or its ethnolinguistic fractionalization (leading to repeated conflicts), or its long-standing corruption. The precise mechanisms vary, but a standard argument has been that Africa is doomed to stagnate due to deep-rooted problems that are hard to fix.

There is no doubt that the inhabitants of Africa have done badly, on average and for the most part, not just over the past 20-40 years, but at least since the beginning of industrialization. It is also indisputable that much of Africa is currently doing quite well - for the region south of the Sahara, growth in total GDP will likely exceed 5 percent in 2007 for the fourth straight year, and per capita growth is recently in the range of 3.5-3.9 percent.1 At the same time, Africa is also making progress in terms of improving key public goods, particularly demonstrating the effectiveness of providing antiretroviral drugs.

Could this be the beginning of either extended growth or a sustained improvement in health, or both, in some parts of Africa? Is there a broad process underway, including manufacturing, agriculture, and services (e.g., tourism) or just progress in a few isolated sectors (e.g., commodities)? Is better performance solely the outcome of high prices for raw materials, coupled with - in some instances - recovery from civil conflict? Where exactly are lives improving? What has placed countries on a path to stronger public finances and reduced inflation? Do bottlenecks in transportation, or public service issues like poor water quality, create obstacles that will quickly become constraints? What can we learn by comparing countries where growth and better health have persisted with countries where gains have proved short-lived?

1. These are aggregate estimates from the IMF's World Economic Outlook, which treat sub-Saharan Africa as one country. Alternative ways of calculating total growth (e.g., unweighted averages across countries) give lower estimates, around 3-4 percent per annum for total GDP growth; this is still high compared with Africa's record.