By Jonathan Wolff, Guardian News and Media Lt
The key to improving the African economy is
an increase in the number of well-qualified,
argumentative young people willing
to challenge the status quo.
According to Markus Haacker,
an international economist working
at the London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine and the World Bank,
the HIV/Aids epidemic ravaging
sub-Saharan Africa appears
to have had little, if any, impact
on macroeconomic growth in the region.
This sounds, at first sight,
rather welcome, if very surprising, news.
Aids has spread through much
of sub-Saharan Africa with immense
health and social impact.
It affects people of all ages,
breaking up families,
even destroying entire villages.
Apparently it is reducing average
life expectancy by up to 20 years
in some countries.
You would think its economic effects
would be equally massive,
taking out the workforce
on which growth depends.
So why not?
When Haacker offers an explanation,
it turns into one of the more
depressing things I have heard lately.
Much of southern Africa's economic
wealth comes from a small number
of high value activities: diamonds, uranium,
copper, and so on.
Relative to the wealth they create,
these industries need relatively
few workers, and companies arrange
for treatment of workers
affected by HIV/Aids.
And when workers grow sick
or die of Aids, there are plenty
of others to take their places.
Where there is such a large
labour surplus, relative to the needs
of major industry, the devastation
of the workforce has a surprisingly
small effect on economic activity.
On the other hand, HIV/Aids goes
virtually unchecked in the informal
sector of subsistence farming
and small trading, where access
to treatment remains very limited.
But this sector barely counts
And this is why Aids has not
had the macroeconomic effects
that might have been expected.
Why, though, is this a matter
for Education Guardian?
Well, the existence of such
uneven development is partly
perpetuated by another fact
that looks at first sight rather cheery,
but disguises a more disturbing reality.
The rate of graduate-level unemployment
in sub-Saharan African is thought
to be very low.
Because there are so few graduates
in the first place.
Just like in the old days
of elite university education in the UK,
those who acquire a degree
have their pick of jobs.
In Africa, the jobs are in government
or public service, and in NGOs,
but also in the management
of the extraction industries,
and the banks and legal
and financial institutions that serve them.
And a proportion leave
to take their chances elsewhere.
Unlike the so-called "Bric" countries
Brazil, Russia, India and China which
are competing for world economic
super-power status, sub-Saharan Africa
has no pool of what are politely called
"highly trained previously
There may be the desire for development,
for the diversification of the economy,
and for the creation of more jobs
requiring higher levels of skill and pay.
But with low numbers of ambitious graduates,
there is little dynamic
to drive these changes.
It is an odd argument, but there
seems to be a case for saying
that economic development is facilitated
by a growing number of people
who are highly educated
but equally highly disgruntled.
If there are not enough jobs
in the civil service or diamond firms,
the highly trained will have
to look for other ways
of using their talents.
They may well stir things up,
try things out.
Perhaps look for new economic
Without such people, economies
are likely to be static
and over-dependent on existing
ways of doing things,
including relying on foreign
investment and management.
There is, of course, plenty
of entrepreneurial activity already
in Africa, but much of it
is small-scale and informal.
Without a pool of graduates who can
find their way around the banking
and commercial worlds, it is likely
to stay that way, perpetuating
a two-pace economy with
a hole in the middle.
And so I'm happy to join the call
for massive investment in university
education in the developing world.
African countries need large groups
of articulate, argumentative,
well-qualified young people
who think that their society
has badly let them down.
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