Africa has made a phenomenal leap in the last decade. Its economy is growing faster than that of any other continent. Foreign investment is at an all-time high; Senegal has lower borrowing costs than Ireland. The idea of a black African billionaire—once outlandish except for kleptocratic dictators—is commonplace now. At the same time an expanding African middle class (similar in size to those in India and China) is sucking in consumer goods. Poverty, famine and disease are still a problem but less so than in the late 20th century, not least thanks to advances in combating HIV and malaria.
Africa’s mood is more optimistic than at any time since the independence era of the 1960s. This appears to be a real turning point for the continent. About a third of its growth is due to the (probably temporary) rise in commodity prices. Some countries have been clever enough to use profits to build new infrastructure. The arrival of China on the scene—as investor and a low-cost builder—has accelerated this trend. Other Asian economies are following its lead, from Korea to Turkey.
Yet factors unconnected to resources have been equally or even more important. Africans are taking a greater interest in each other. Regional economic cooperation has improved markedly—borders are easier to cross now, especially in the east. Technology helps too. Africa has 400m mobile-phone users—more than America. Such tools boost local economies, especially through mobile banking and the distribution of agricultural information.
As the rest of the world struggles with economic meltdown, Africa is for once enjoying a moment in the sun. Even political violence, long an anti-reformist cancer, is simmering down. Many long-running civil wars have (more or less) ended: Sudan, Congo, Angola. Bad governance is still holding back many countries, but markets are becoming more open thanks to privatisation. Examples of the old Africa (destitute, violent and isolated) are becoming more rare.
All this makes a fantastic subject for a book. Two remarkable French authors set out to write it. Jean-Michel Severino heads the Agence Française de Développement, France’s international development agency. Olivier Ray is one of his underlings and spent years at the UN. With "Africa's Moment", they have assembled compelling facts and arguments for why Africa is doing well and where this will lead.
Sadly they overstate their case. They say, "The 21st century will be the century of Africa." The fact that many Chinese come to Africa does not mean they regard its prospects as superior to those at home. How many Africans are building roads in China or setting up factories there? The authors also take every opportunity to castigate other westerners for their ignorance of the changed continent. In the introduction they write, "There are countless books devoted to Africa, but they all speak of a different place: yesterday’s Africa." The fact that Africa is rising is no secret. Even myopic financiers are now scouring the continent for investment opportunities. A better book would stick to the facts and avoid the boosterism familiar to the rants of discredited politicians.
Africa's Moment by Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray is out now in Britain (Polity, £20). It will be published in America in December.