Argument

Are Africans Optimistic About the Future?

As the world sets new development goals, sub-Saharan Africans see hope and challenges ahead -- and say they still need aid.

MOZAMBIQUE - JUNE 30:  Children wave to the media as they gather together June 30, 2005 in Mozambique. Since Mozambique's 15-year civil war ended in 1992, the country has made a strong recovery, but it has suffered setbacks such as severe floods in 2000 and 2001, followed by two years of drought in 2002 and 2003. These disasters have had a huge impact and led to widespread food shortages and an increase in outbreaks of infectious diseases such as cholera, measles and meningitis. About 13 percent of babies die before their first birthday, 20 percent of children die before the age of five and 48 percent of the country's children are chronically malnourished. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is having a devastating effect on families, many of whom suffer from poverty and a lack of basic services, with tens of thousands of children orphaned, many of them also HIV positive or already ill with AIDS.  (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
MOZAMBIQUE - JUNE 30: Children wave to the media as they gather together June 30, 2005 in Mozambique. Since Mozambique's 15-year civil war ended in 1992, the country has made a strong recovery, but it has suffered setbacks such as severe floods in 2000 and 2001, followed by two years of drought in 2002 and 2003. These disasters have had a huge impact and led to widespread food shortages and an increase in outbreaks of infectious diseases such as cholera, measles and meningitis. About 13 percent of babies die before their first birthday, 20 percent of children die before the age of five and 48 percent of the country's children are chronically malnourished. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is having a devastating effect on families, many of whom suffer from poverty and a lack of basic services, with tens of thousands of children orphaned, many of them also HIV positive or already ill with AIDS. (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

This weekend, the United Nations is set to ratify new global development goals, replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are expiring after 15 years. Amid the long parade of world leaders — including Pope Francis — who will visit Turtle Bay over the next few days, it’s easy to miss this story. But the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will shape the development agenda for the next decade and a half in countries across the globe, including sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has consistently lagged on key economic, health, education, and other indicators. Despite the obstacles they face, surveys suggest many in Africa are buoyed by recent economic growth and feel relatively optimistic about their economic future. Still, they are not quite ready to tackle development challenges on their own — most still see a need for foreign aid.

Compared with the rest of the world, people in sub-Saharan Africa are relatively sanguine about their economic future. A new Pew Research Center survey across nine nations in the region finds that a median of 56 percent believe that children in their country today will be better off financially than their parents. High levels of optimism are also found in Latin America (58 percent) and Asia-Pacific (51 percent), however there is limited hope for the next generation’s economic opportunities among people in the Middle East (32 percent) and Europe (28 percent), as well as in the United States (32 percent).

These optimistic attitudes in sub-Saharan Africa are driven in large part by recent economic growth. The publics that express the most positive outlook for the next generation are typically those whose nations have experienced the highest rates of growth over the last decade. For example, Nigerians, with an average of 7 percent GDP growth since 2005, are broadly optimistic about their children’s economic future (84 percent expect children will exceed their parents financially).

Nonetheless, despite relatively strong economic growth, Africa continues to trail the rest of the world on most development measures. Under the MDGs, goals were set to reduce extreme poverty, improve health care, and increase access to education, among other issues. While great progress was made in each of these areas in sub-Saharan Africa, they still lag far behind other parts of the globe. The region still has the highest proportion of people living under $1.25 a day (considered extreme poverty), the highest rates of maternal and child mortality, and the lowest primary education enrollment.

These challenges are clearly reflected in the Pew Research Center survey. Lack of employment opportunities pops up as one of the three most important problems in every country surveyed. Fully 88 percent across the nine nations polled say unemployment is a very big concern in their country. Also high on the list are poor health care, poor quality schools, government corruption, and crime — with at least eight-in-ten saying these are top domestic problems.

When asked which development issues, besides strictly economic concerns, should be the top priority for improvement in their country, people in eight of nine nations pick health care as the top choice. Education is generally the second priority, though in South Africa schools are number one.

As to who is best equipped to address these concerns, people express the highest level of confidence in their national governments. A median of 78 percent say they are very or somewhat confident that their government will help to solve the key challenges their country faces. Nonetheless, the only place where a majority of the public is very confident in their national government is Nigeria, which appears to be riding a wave of optimism after successful national elections in March.

This lukewarm vote of confidence in the government among African publics may reflect some serious doubts about government effectiveness. Eight-in-ten say political corruption is a very big problem, with Tanzanians, Ghanaians, and Nigerians especially critical on this issue. And majorities in most countries say government is run for the benefit of a few groups, rather than the benefit of all. This level of concern is consistent with the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, which measures perceived levels of public sector corruption worldwide. The index ranks sub-Saharan Africa as one of the most corrupt regions in the world.

As another player in Africa’s development, foreign aid groups get generally positive ratings in the survey. A median of 70 percent have at least some confidence in these organizations to address major domestic concerns. Ugandans, Ghanaians, and Ethiopians express the most confidence in foreign aid organizations compared with other actors. Majorities in all countries describe foreign aid programs as effective and many also believe they benefit people in need. Still, a median of 53 percent criticize foreign aid programs as corrupt, including 70 percent in Tanzania. And many people are also concerned that these programs are inefficient.

Despite these mixed views, Africans still say there is a clear role for foreign organizations in their countries’ development. Roughly half or more of those surveyed in eight of nine countries think they need more foreign aid than they currently receive, including more than 80 percent in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Uganda. Relatively wealthy South Africa is the outlier, with only 26 percent saying their country needs more international assistance.

Right now, publics in sub-Saharan Africa express considerable concern about the quality of employment, health care, and education in their countries — three areas where significant progress was made under the MDGs but where ultimate targets have yet to be achieved. And, even with the relatively high economic growth experienced by many countries in Africa and the publics’ optimism for the future, there is also a sense that the region won’t reach these goals without greater involvement from the international community.

AFP/Getty Images

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