African economies poised for lift-off

Economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa remains strong and is poised for lift-off, says a new World Bank report.

Sub-Saharan economic growth was 4.9% in 2011, just shy of the pre-crisis average of 5%. Excluding South Africa, which accounts for over a third of the region’s GDP, growth in the rest of region was 5.9%, making it one of the fastest growing developing regions.

The report says over a third of countries in the region attained growth rates of at least 6%, with another 40% growing between 4 – 6%. Among fast- growing economies in 2011 were resource-rich countries such as Ghana, Mozambique, and Nigeria, as well as other economies such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, all posting growth rates of at least 7% in 2011.

In view of the turbulence that has beset the global economy in the last five years, many would be right to think that the prospects for Africa are terrible. But as this issue of Africa’s Pulse shows, African economies continue to show resilience and some of the fastest-growing economies in the world are now in Africa. The urgent agenda remains sustaining the macroeconomic reforms while accelerating the structural reforms that will deliver the right quality of growth that creates jobs and raises incomes on the continent,” says Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili, The World Bank’s Vice President for Africa, and a former Nigerian Minister of Mineral Resources.

However, the report also says that the Euro zone debt crisis and tighter domestic policies in some large developing countries pushed African exports lower in late 2011. Metal and mineral exporters (e.g. Zambia, Niger, and Mozambique) and cotton exporters (e.g. Benin and Burkina Faso) were among the hardest hit in the three months ending in November 2011. Given the recent strengthening of other commodity prices in 2012, export values for both agriculture and metal and mineral exporters may already have started expanding.

The latest Africa’s Pulse reports that the weakening global economy in the second half of 2011 affected tourist arrivals. For the year, tourist arrivals in Sub-Saharan Africa were up by 6.2 percent, higher than the global average of 4.4%, but lower than the 9.6% recorded for the region in 2010, when it benefitted from hosting of the World Cup. Tourism arrivals from Europe saw a decline in major destination markets such as Mauritius.

In a significant development, the World Bank says that overall capital flows to Sub-Saharan Africa rose by USD8 billion in 2011 to USD48.2 billion. Foreign direct investment, which accounts for about 77% of all capital flows to the region, contributed to about 83% of the increase.

Recent foreign direct investment to the region has been spurred by increased global competition for natural resources, higher commodity prices, robust economic growth and a fast rising middle class. The region is increasingly being recognized as an investment destination, including from private equity investors

Africa’s Pulse reports that the Sahel region of West Africa is facing a severe food security situation. Less-than-average rainfall, poor distribution, and displaced families due to conflict have left more than 13-15 million people across Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania vulnerable.

Below average and patchy rainfall in 2011 led to a smaller grain harvest for the 2011/2012 season and less grain production across the Sahel, in particular in Mauritania, Chad, Niger and the Gambia. Total grain production in the Sahel is at least 25% below the previous season (2010/2011), with Chad and Mauritania recording shortfalls of at least 50% compared to last year. There are concerns the food crisis could spread to Senegal and northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon.

Returning emigrants from North Africa and fewer remittances from migrant workers left in neighboring countries have deepened the effects of the crisis. The current conflict in Mali has also forced thousands to flee their homes to safety in Burkina Faso and Mauritania, putting pressure on food markets and increasing the strain on already vulnerable communities.

“The famine in the Horn of Africa last year and the drought in the Sahel this year are cruel reminders that Africa, the continent that contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, is likely to be the most hurt by climate change,” says the World Bank’s Oby Ezekwesili.

The new Africa’s Pulse devotes a special section to fuel price subsidies in Africa, reporting that in 2010-11 over half of all African countries had some subsidy in place for fuel products, and these in turn cost on average, 1.4% of GDP in public revenues. Of the 25 countries with fuel subsidies, the fiscal cost of subsidies in six countries—primarily oil exporters—was at or above 2% of GDP in 2011.

The fiscal cost in oil exporters was almost two-and-a-half times the levels observed for oil importers. These costs have grown sharply in some countries in recent years.

However, fuel subsidies overwhelmingly benefit better-off families, with survey results for 12 countries worldwide showing that the top 20% of households receive about 6 times more in subsidy benefits than the bottom 20%.

As world oil prices remain high, a number of African countries have raised domestic prices of fuel. For example, Ghana raised fuel prices by 30% in January 2011. Similarly, Mozambique raised fuel prices in 2011 (10% in April and 8 percent in July) and Guinea also introduced measures to reduce the fuel subsidy.  On January 1, 2012, the Nigerian government removed the fuel subsidy on gasoline.  Following week-long protests, a portion of the subsidy was reinstated.

"That poor people protest the removal of fuel subsidies that benefit the rich shows how deep the continent's governance problems are.  They simply don't trust the government to spend the savings on them,” says Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa and author of Africa’s Pulse.

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