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

towards GDP.

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

disadvantaged people".

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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