The Ebola Outbreak – Is Africa Really Rising?

27 November 2014

Ebola is a deadly disease, spread through bodily contact. It was first identified in the 1970s and there have been a number of outbreaks in parts of Africa since then. Currently there is an outbreak in West Africa, affecting Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in particular. However, Nigeria has recently been declared ebola-free.

Associate Professor in Geography in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, Padraig Carmody, considers what the worst outbreak of this disease tells us, and how it sits with reports that Africa now has the fastest growing continental economy in the world.

He said: “In much of the financial media, Africa is said to be “rising”. However, Liberia has a mere 90 doctors and Sierra Leone is reported to have around 120. Sierra Leone has one of the world’s fastest growing economies – the World Bank estimates its growth for 2014 as being around 14% - yet its per capita income is only around US $680 a year. That number drops to around $400 per person, per year, for those living in Liberia and Guinea.”

“There are a few points to take away from this: 1) Growth has been largely driven by mineral exports and, consequently, it has not been sufficiently inclusionary, and 2) it is relatively easy to grow an economy quickly when you begin from a lowly base. A 14% growth rate for Sierra Leone means an increase in income of about €68 per person per year, but of course this is highly unequally distributed – the already wealthy capture most of the benefits. So, is the “Africa Rising” discourse really justified? Who is the continent rising for, and what is it rising towards? And, what does the ebola outbreak tell us about this narrative? Will the “market” solve the challenge of African development?”

“As noted earlier there is another important point to take away from the crisis; that is the remarkable feat achieved by Nigeria in being declared ebola-free. Nigeria is often portrayed as being a “failed state” plagued by massive corruption, with an oil-related insurgency dominating the south of the country and a brutal Islamic one holding sway in the north east. Nigeria certainly has its problems but, through a rigorous tracking system, every person who came into contact with someone with ebola was identified. Test results were confirmed within 24 hours, and the disease was stopped in its tracks.”

“This shows that even with limited resources African institutions and states retain substantial capacity. Programmes of economic reform promoted by Western donors in Africa over the last 30 years have largely focused on shrinking the African state. This is misplaced. Rather, what the ebola crisis has shown is the importance of building state capacity and accountability to tackle development challenges. This must primarily be internally driven and demanded – although aid programmes can – and do – help. Greater state capacity to promote inclusionary economic growth, diversification and social protection will also have public health benefits, because poverty is the primary cause of poor health. It would also help protect other countries from the spread of highly infectious diseases in the future.”

“Much of Africa has made substantial socio-economic progress in the last decade in particular, but for the continent to truly “rise”, a new relationship with the international system and a new state-citizen bargain is required.”

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