Africa’s Moment, by Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray, Polity Press, €25.90, $25.00.
If you think of Africa as a rural continent struck by famine and war, then you are the target audience for Jean- Michel Severino and Olivier Ray’s book. Severino and Ray both worked for the French Agency for Development; they also respectively held positions as vice-president of the World Bank and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their approach to Africa’s development through the lens of economic geography is thus based on years of practical experience and analysis. Paul Collier, in the foreword to the English version, warns us that the view is novel to the anglophone audience and comes from an “intimate and lengthy involvement with Africa.” This might be why Severino and Ray do not position themselves within Afro-pessimist /Afro-optimist schools.
On the contrary, they wish to break down such clichés. This makes Africa’s Moment a refreshing book about the challenges and foreseeable stakes of Africa’s future in the 21st century. They argue that today’s mainstream understanding of Africa corresponds to a vision grounded in the past. Africa’s future, in their view, will be shaped through its revolutionary demographic changes.
Much like Europe before the 19th century industrial revolution, Asia in the 1960s or the Middle East now, Africa will have seen its population increase exponentially by 2050. Observing in retrospect, the authors underline that after each of these demographic revolutions, the affected continents saw changes in their public policies, increased development and growth. It is interesting to note that their analysis partly foresaw the Arab Spring – the book was first published in French in 2010. According to the authors, discrepancies between regimes, economies and the new population reality caused the revolutions to happen.
In the case of Africa, the demographic revolution will be of a never-before-seen amplitude. The most conservative scenario estimates that Africa’s population will reach 1.53 billion by 2050. In the span of a century, the continent will have seen its population increase tenfold, with multiplying internal migrations. The new African citizens will be residing in urban spaces, unlike their great-grandparents – in 1950, no city of more than 1 million inhabitants existed on the continent. In the middle of this revolution, the authors rightly question the challenges ahead: “how are the vast populations of Abidjan, Nairobi or Lagos to be housed, fed, cared for and educated?” They argue that addressing these challenges with adequate policies will generate as many opportunities.
The demographic evolution will also greatly modify the weight of Africa in world politics. Severino and Ray envision a “courted” Africa. Others have already mentioned a “new scramble for Africa,” referring to the race by energy-hungry countries to conquer markets in the continent, with China in the sightlines. Africa’s natural resources will be at the heart of fierce competition between old and new partners. They will have to take into account a new Africa. Apprehending the changes beforehand would be an advantage.