Africa – Even more complicated than it looks

My good friend (and my editor at WorldChanging) Alex Steffen just posted a powerful graphic to WorldChanging, under the title “The African Cliff”. (He found the graph via Dave Robert’s blog, who found it at Marginal Revolution, who found it via Ben Muse, who found it in the 2005 Economic Report of the (US) President. The graphic shows the change in life expectancy in five African nations from 1958 – 2003. In the nations featured, life expectancy has dropped over that period of time.

It’s a powerful image, but I worry that it’s also a deceptive one. I took some time to do a little research and complicate the conclusions of the graph in question. Here’s the comment I posted on WorldChanging in response to Alex’s post.

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That’s a powerful graph, Alex, and an important reminder of the tragic impact of AIDS on the African continent. But it’s misleading to title the image “The African Cliff”. (I realize it wasn’t your choice of title, but as a fellow contributor to WC, I’m going to debunk in this space, rather than on a blog I know less well.)

The five nations pictured in the graph above are five of the nations most powerfully impacted by HIV/AIDS. The impact of AIDS on the entire continent is not evenly distributed. While many southern African nations are experiencing adult infection rates of 25% or greater, many nations further north have been able to keep infection rates below 10%. While this still has a devestating impact on local populations, it means that life expectancy in those nations has increased, not declined, over the past few decades.

Using UNDP’s online Human Development Report research tools, which draw data from the UN’s World Population Prospects data set, I was able to compare life expectancies in sub-Saharan African nations between 1970-5 and 2000-5. Across that region, from 1970-75, life expectancy was 45.2 years; at present (2000-05), it’s 46.1. While that increase is unimpressive and frustrating, it’s actually slightly better than the increase seen in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states (from 69.2 to 69.6).

Looking individually at 44 nations in sub-Saharan Africa between these two time periods, 24 (55%) saw increases in life expectancy, while 20 saw decreases. Of the nations reporting declines in life expectancy, all but three nations (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire) are contiguous, forming a block that extends from Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in the north down to South Africa.

These nations have been powerfully impacted by HIV, but have also wrestled with the enormous economic and social upheavals caused by the post-colonial exodus of (predominantly white) merchants and landowners who had controlled most of the local economy. Two of the nations on the graph – Zimbabwe and Kenya – have suffered through some of the worst corruption and kleptocracy imaginable during the period from 1970 to the present. The three West African nations where life expectancy has decreased are all countries that have hosted – or currently host – civil wars.

Of the 24 nations where life expectancy has improved are Nigeria and Ethiopia, the most populous nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Also included are nations where seemingly intractible conflicts have given way to peace – Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau.

So here’s my graph, which I invite you to hang next to “The African Cliff” in as many offices as you can gain access to.

Why is this important? (Why would I take time to critique a graph whose message and importance I agree with?) There’s a terrible tendency for Westerners to encounter some of the hard facts about life in Africa and throw their hands up in despair. While I know that your reaction to a graph like this, Alex, is to redouble your efforts for social justice around the world, the reaction of many people is to dismiss Africa as hopeless.

Africa is an incredible mix of hope and hopelessness, regression and progress, challenges and victories. It’s important to celebrate the victories while we mourn the failures.

This entry was posted in Africa (older). Bookmark the permalink.

Africa: Even More Complicated than it Looks

My good friend (and my editor at WorldChanging) Alex Steffen just posted a powerful graphic to WorldChanging, under the title “The African Cliff”. (He found the graph via Dave Robert’s blog, who found it at Marginal Revolution, who found it via Ben Muse, who found it in the 2005 Economic Report of the (US) President. The graphic shows the change in life expectancy in five African nations from 1958 – 2003. In the nations featured, life expectancy has dropped over that period of time.

It’s a powerful image, but I worry that it’s also a deceptive one. I took some time to do a little research and complicate the conclusions of the graph in question. Here’s the comment I posted on WorldChanging in response to Alex’s post.

—–

That’s a powerful graph, Alex, and an important reminder of the tragic impact of AIDS on the African continent. But it’s misleading to title the image “The African Cliff”. (I realize it wasn’t your choice of title, but as a fellow contributor to WC, I’m going to debunk in this space, rather than on a blog I know less well.)

The five nations pictured in the graph above are five of the nations most powerfully impacted by HIV/AIDS. The impact of AIDS on the entire continent is not evenly distributed. While many southern African nations are experiencing adult infection rates of 25% or greater, many nations further north have been able to keep infection rates below 10%. While this still has a devestating impact on local populations, it means that life expectancy in those nations has increased, not declined, over the past few decades.

Using UNDP’s online Human Development Report research tools, which draw data from the UN’s World Population Prospects data set, I was able to compare life expectancies in sub-Saharan African nations between 1970-5 and 2000-5. Across that region, from 1970-75, life expectancy was 45.2 years; at present (2000-05), it’s 46.1. While that increase is unimpressive and frustrating, it’s actually slightly better than the increase seen in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states (from 69.2 to 69.6).

Looking individually at 44 nations in sub-Saharan Africa between these two time periods, 24 (55%) saw increases in life expectancy, while 20 saw decreases. Of the nations reporting declines in life expectancy, all but three nations (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire) are contiguous, forming a block that extends from Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in the north down to South Africa.

These nations have been powerfully impacted by HIV, but have also wrestled with the enormous economic and social upheavals caused by the post-colonial exodus of (predominantly white) merchants and landowners who had controlled most of the local economy. Two of the nations on the graph – Zimbabwe and Kenya – have suffered through some of the worst corruption and kleptocracy imaginable during the period from 1970 to the present. The three West African nations where life expectancy has decreased are all countries that have hosted – or currently host – civil wars.

Of the 24 nations where life expectancy has improved are Nigeria and Ethiopia, the most populous nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Also included are nations where seemingly intractible conflicts have given way to peace – Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau.

So here’s my graph, which I invite you to hang next to “The African Cliff” in as many offices as you can gain access to.

Why is this important? (Why would I take time to critique a graph whose message and importance I agree with?) There’s a terrible tendency for Westerners to encounter some of the hard facts about life in Africa and throw their hands up in despair. While I know that your reaction to a graph like this, Alex, is to redouble your efforts for social justice around the world, the reaction of many people is to dismiss Africa as hopeless.

Africa is an incredible mix of hope and hopelessness, regression and progress, challenges and victories. It’s important to celebrate the victories while we mourn the failures.

This entry was posted in Africa, Blogs and bloggers. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Africa: Even More Complicated than it Looks

  1. Matt says:

    I admire your interest and understanding on the topic of HIV/AIDS in Africa. You offer an interesting alternate perspective on the continent’s life expectancy trend. I agree that it’s important to strike a balance between conveying a sense of urgency while not projecting hoplessness. Thanks for your time collecting all that data, and for your commitment to this issue.

  2. Tatuuuu says:

    Ich finde es toll , dass sie so ber die Dritte Welt denken & sich dafr interessieren! Und ich habe fr mein Prijekt jetzt genug informationen dank ihne ! :) Vielen Dank ! MfG.

  3. Andy says:

    I know this post is old, but I’d still appreciate it if you could speak to my questions.

    It’s true that there is a tendency for Westerners toward apathy, one of the causes of being perceived hopelessness like you said. Another cause is the normative preconception of Africa as a land of hopelessness, where unthinkable tragedies naturally and regularly occur. I think you are misattributing cause and effect when you accuse this graph of potentially increasing the perception of hopelessness, because it features a trend not commonly attributed to African countries: stabilized progress.

    What makes this graph startling is that it shows a dramatic, chaotic decline after a visibly linear increase in life expectancy from 1958 to 1988 in four countries. A stable rise in the life expectancy being suddenly derailed by a singular event does not cohere with the Western narrative of Africa as having endemic disease and poverty.

    The normalization of violence was primarily responsible for the lackluster response to the Rwandan genocide, for instance. Most Westerners didn’t see its significance because it was essentially similar to every other narrative of violence in Africa they had heard. Your graph and your message presents a very similar essentialization; including the life expectancy rates of change for all African countries makes it seem like what’s happening in these five countries is not unique.

    Sympathy fatigue exists, whether or not this graph gained notoriety. There’s another trend exhibited by Western observers which has a chilling effect on interest in Africa, which is the rationalization of problems in Africa as a method of staving off guilt. I’m not accusing you of the latter, but relegating the incredible rise in mortality in those five countries to the edge of a graph is a disturbingly utilitarian comparison. I don’t understand how this phenomena not being universal in Africa makes it any less significant. Pointing out that other African countries aren’t doing as bad presumes that Africa should be considered as a unified whole, which is an obviously problematic paradigm.

    Can you explain how this graph is deceptive, exactly? Why does evaluation the the impact of AIDS in Africa need to consider every country in the continent?

  4. Ethan says:

    Andy, you’re opening up a conversation that’s more than eight years old, so I will try to recall the conversations that led to this post.

    My friend and colleague Alex Steffen posted this grant to Worldchanging along with the following text:
    “Here’s what widespread poverty, oppression and a massive unchecked epidemic are doing, today, to Africa. This is what a continent mid-melt-down looks like.”

    I felt like he was extrapolating from a striking graph about five countries to describe the rest of the continent in a way that wasn’t correct or fair, and I responded to his graph with one that put the terrible loss of life in those five countries into a broader continental perspective.

    I did this because I was frequently asked in the early 2000s about the impact of AIDS in Africa. At that point, I worked primarily in West Africa, where the spread of HIV was much slower and more constrained and didn’t have as significant an effect on life expectancy. The narrative of AIDS in Africa was such a powerful and pervasive one, friends would accuse me of “minimizing” the AIDS problem in Ghana when I would quote UN statistics that showed the low incidence rates of HIV in that country. I got really sick of being asked to write grants focusing on recovery from HIV in parts of the continent where HIV was not a massive public health problem.

    I guess I don’t understand the thrust of your critique (or why you’ve chosen to critique an eight year old graph on my blog.) In response to a graph that looked at shrinking life expectancy in five countries, I added the context of looking at forty countries. It might have been a better graph had I showed those forty countries over time to see who’d made steady progress, who’d made incremental progress, and who made progress then was set back by HIV. Fair enough. But perhaps you’d do me the courtesy of following the links in the post and trying to understand the context. My reason for examining the impact of AIDS in Africa more broadly than these five countries is because the post I’m reacting to pointed to the tragedy in these five countries as a continent-wide trend, which it was not.

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