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Unknown continent: On myths, methodologies and missing data on Africa.

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Which country has the largest share of women in parliament? Which country contributes the most troops to UN peacekeeping? The answer is not along the lines of Finland and the USA, but a far less intuitive dyad: Rwanda and Ethiopia.

If you weren’t caught by these – good for you! But as I will try to show below and in my next articles, there is a widespread issue with getting numbers on Africa right. And getting them right is crucial for identifying areas needing improvement and effective policies. The issue is partially caused by the lack of, or the wrong type of, publicity concerning Africa. Dealing with some popular misconceptions, or “myths”, if you want, is the main goal of this text. We actually have facts to deal with those. Unfortunately, there are also more nuanced and harder to trace problems.

For one thing – the way we quantify things matters. The methodologies behind common indices seem neutral and objective, but might have some unintended consequences. Recent changes in the Human Development Index (HDI), mostly using the geometric instead of the arithmetic mean to sum component indices, attracted controversy for supposedly placing too much emphasis on the income component, especially for countries lagging behind on this measure. More generally, most of Africa suffers from unreliable or missing data. This is the result of a combination of factors, like: the poor accessibility of rural areas, the lack of uniform standards of collection and the less than rigorous implementation of existing ones. These two issues will be taken up in the next issue.

Myth 1: There are many places bigger than Africa

Not really. Africa is the second largest continent. At 30.2 million km2, it is 22% larger than the next biggest continent – North America, almost twice the size of Russia and three times larger than Europe. However, if you look at the maps below, only Map 1(b) seems to confirm that. On Map 1(a) even Greenland seems larger than Africa. What makes the two maps so different is the projection used. Each map has to distort some aspect of the Earth’s surface, because it is not possible to perfectly represent the surface of a sphere in two dimensions. Some aspects of the map, like area or line distance, will be distorted. Map 1(a), which has a common Mercator projection, ensures that all lines of longitude and latitude are parallel and meet at right angles. This feature is useful for navigation purposes but heavily distorts area. Places close to the equator (like Africa) are smaller and areas closer to the poles (like Greenland) are bigger than in reality. Map 1(b) uses the Robinson projection, which is a compromise, trying to minimize all possible distortions.

a) Mercator Projection b) Robinson projection

So, can we find Mercator maps only on ships? Not really. The Mercator projection proved to be quite resilient and is still used in many classrooms. Google Maps was using a version of this projection until earlier this year. Gradually it is being replaced by more accurate projections, including the Robinson one, which National Geographic adopted already in 1988. Other maps used in this article also adopt this projection. Understanding many issues of Africa, like transportation, accessibility, political control etc. require that we appreciate how large a continent it actually is.

Myth 2: Africa is not conducive to female political representation

Women are, certainly in many respects, at a disadvantage or outright peril in many places in Africa, especially conflict zones. What is less obvious is the surprising progress in women’s rights in some countries. Rwanda, which experienced a horrible genocide in 1994, seems to be an unlikely candidate to top any “good” rankings, but actually it has gone quite far in advancing women’s rights. It has the highest female political representation worldwide, with 61.3% of its newly elected lower house of parliament composed of female representatives. Two other Africa states - Namibia and South Africa - are also in the top 10 of the ranking, and for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa the average women’s share in parliament is 23.8%, just a few percentage points below Europe and the Americas. Map 2 shows these trends more clearly.

What impact do these numbers have? To take the case of Rwanda, for example, Burnet (2011) finds little to no impact of increased women’s participation regarding the improvement in democratic processes or the passage of a greater number of women’s rights legislation. What she finds however is that electoral quotas for women (30% of seats at all levels of government) have reversed the colonial “gender paradigm” of women working in households and being dependent on men. She also documents an increase in employment opportunities and social mobility for women, especially in urban areas.

In general, the gap between female and male workforce participation is also smallest in sub-Saharan Africa, out of all world’s regions, at around 10%. The desirability of this is more difficult to assess than political representation, without looking at it on a case-by-case basis. Female labour force participation on the one hand means more possibilities for economic independence for women. On the other hand, many commentators noted that high female labour force participation in sub-Saharan Africa comes from extreme poverty and low earnings, which force women to work, as men are unable to earn enough on their own.

Map 2 Women political representation around the world (as of 01/10/2018)

Map 3 Growth in GDP per capita 2010-2015

Myth 3: Economic growth is just not possible in sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest world region, but by no means it is doomed to be so. Ha-Joon Chang notices that if structural disadvantages (climate, diseases, culture etc.) were a permanent check on its development, then we would not have seen a sustained annual growth in GDP per capita in the region, averaging 1.5% in the 1960s and 1970s. Only then did it slow down, and from 1980 to 2009 sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP per capita grew by only 0.2%. Ha-Joon Chang attributes this to the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) as a condition of help from multilateral organizations, which forced liberalization of the market and trade on unprepared African economies. It seems a contentious issue, but verifying the merit of this claim is beyond the scope of this text.

In terms of average annual GDP growth rates between 2010 and 2015, Africa performed relatively well. In Map 3 we can see that three countries – Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe – averaged more than 5% annual GDP per capita growth for this period. Africa in general wasn’t doing noticeably worse than other regions in the world.

What is worrying, however, is the strong presence of Africa in both the top and bottom of the ranking. Libya and the Central African Republic, both devoured by civil war, contracted greatly over this period.

Myth 4: We pour mountains of gold in foreign aid into Africa

We give Africa $54bn each year in foreign aid. That is around 71.4m3 of gold. Not exactly a mountain, rather slightly more than half of one London tube car. This still makes Africa largest recipient of foreign aid – but is it a lot?

Foreign aid is usually measured as Net Official Development Aid (ODA): the value of donor government grants and soft loans to developing countries, aimed at promoting economic development and welfare.

At slightly above $54bn, net ODA to Africa is only $408m larger than to Asia (see Table 1). Of course, Asia is much more populated, but when comparing the two values think how many Asian countries no longer need that much development assistance, including China, which is already a net donor of ODA. Figure 1 also puts $54bn in some perspective.

One can say that we cannot force donor governments to pledge more funds, or that perhaps they already give as much as they can.

As to the first point, the leaders of developed nations have themselves agreed to set quite an ambitious target for ODA, at 0.7% of their GNI, as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Perhaps the target is too ambitious, since only six countries achieved it, and a further three (the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands) came close to it in 2017. At the same time, other countries at similar development levels performed far worse, with the United States, Canada and Italy for example contributing less than 0.3% of their GNI to ODA.

Low levels of ODA have persisted well below this self-declared target for decades and there appears to be no signs of incoming change, especially with the increasingly inward-looking foreign policy of the current U.S. administration.

Myth 5: They fight, we make peace

Many African countries might be experiencing armed conflicts. But it is increasingly other African states that are involved in peacekeeping operations and mediation processes. As of September 2018, UN peacekeeping staff is composed of 55.6% African personnel. Ethiopia was a top contributor, deploying 8,333 staff. Also, five out of seven current peacekeeping missions on the continent have an African state as a top troops contributor.

Photograph 1. UN Peacekeepers from Ethiopia. Source: United Nations Peacekeeping Author: Christopher Herwig

It might be that this increased involvement is jeopardizing the principle of neutrality of peacekeepers. Troops forming part of UN missions ultimately respond to orders from their governments, who are more likely to have their own stake in the conflict if it is happening in their region. Nevertheless, the activity of African countries in this field, often under the auspices of the African Union, proves that these countries can cooperate with each other and with outside actors in fragile situations and that their capacity, both diplomatic and military, to deal with regional conflicts is increasing.


The preceding discussion is not to make anyone complacent about progress made in Africa, especially its sub-Saharan part. Most, if not all, countries still face significant issues ranging from economic problems, through diseases to ethnic tensions. The purpose of this text was to bring attention to some common misconceptions and omissions that might distort our dialogue and thinking about Africa as a region. And the list is by no means exhaustive. Topics of refugees, currency, renewable energy and ethnic complexity were among those left on the “cutting room floor”. The reader is strongly encouraged to have a closer look at them in one’s free time.

In this article, we looked at different claims using clear-cut evidence and numbers. The issue becomes more complex when the numbers themselves are not objective or are untrustworthy. How problematic statistics on and from Africa can be, will be discussed at length in a later issue.

Robert Lipinksi


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