Africa Rising? Looking Beyond The Horizon

In this latest Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) Outlook, we examine three interrelated trends that have largely been overshadowed by the constant praise the region has received over the past few years. 'Africa Rising' has now become the phrase that best captures how the world perceives Africa. The positive growth story has captivated the region and those who are interested in it. This narrative in many ways has overshadowed some trends that are directly affecting the poor and vulnerable. 

These trends tell an interesting story, the first trend is the rising income inequality that East Africa has faced. This Outlook examines trends in income inequality in East Africa between 1992 and 2011. It looks at the region through the lens of a single entity, as one entire country. Who is getting the majority share of East Africa's economy? This Outlook discovered that if the East African Community (EAC) was a single country with its 2011 gross domestic product (GDP) distributed according to the shares of wealth obtaining in each constituent state, the richest 20% of East Africans would enjoy 50% of the income, or $41 billion for about 28 million people. Given the EAC's GDP of $83 billion in 2011, the region's richest 10% (14.1 million people) would have shared $29 billion amongst themselves and received almost $2,100 each. This would place them in their own lower-middle-income country. The poorest 10% would have shared $1.7 billion and each received $125. This is less than half of Burundi's per capita GDP in 2011.

The second trend is the noticeable tightening of media freedoms and a reduction in the political space in the past eighteen months (to June 2013). In Kenya and Tanzania, this process has been subtle. Burundi and Uganda have been rather more overt and aggressive about it. If political and press freedoms also become a factor enjoyed by the few, how might middle and lower income households express their grievances as inequality continues to rise? 

The third trend that this Outlook explores is affordable housing, which is inherently connected to the economic success story of East Africa. As the economies consistently grow, more apartments and high rises will continue to be built but will middle and low income families be able to afford them? The high cost of apartments and housing seems to be ushering a rapid 'upscaling' of the housing stock that is pushing the middle class to the margins of the cities. The poor are finding, at one extreme, that they have to share their living space with the dead. 

Despite these trends, it is hard to deny the progress that the region and continent has made over the past decade. Indeed the Africa of today is very different from what it was five or ten years ago. However, in the midst of the excitement surrounding the 'Africa Rising' narrative, some caution might well be heeded. Some of the accolades attributed to the GHEA have been so bullish to the point that the region has become unrecognizable. This is an avoidable trap. We should take note of hidden trends that may undermine the progress in the future as well as exacerbate the divides that currently exist. Unless targeted policies to bridge the divide between the top 20% and bottom 20% are put in place, we may very well see wealthy countries as a result of the oil and gas booms in the region, but incredibly undemocratic ones as well. As a result the 'Africa Rising' cheer will only be relevant to those residents living in "ghost high rises," which are essentially apartment buildings in the region's major cities where only the first two floors are occupied due to the high rent prices that very few can afford. 

Download SID Trend Monitoring Report: Africa Rising? Looking Beyond The Horizon

Photo: Gado