Twenty-•Ā�ve years ago, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was a region of despair. Outside of Botswana and Mauritius, democracy was but a distant dream. Unelected and unaccountable governments held power across the subcontinent. Dictators treated their countries as personal •Ā�efdoms, ruling by force and intimidation, taking what they wanted, doling out riches to a favored few, and sprinkling a handful of crumbs to the rest. The terrible scar of apartheid made a mockery of justice and plunged the entire southern region into con•Āāict and crisis. And the politics of the Cold War made a bad situation worse, as East and West propped up unsavory rulers for their own purposes with little regard for the effect on Africans themselves.
The leadership crisis translated into an economic crisis that left the region effectively bankrupt. Authoritarian leaders used the state to try to control the economic commanding heights, in part to •Ā�nance their patronage systems. In the end, their control only destroyed economic assets and personal livelihoods. For 20 years starting in the mid-1970s, nearly all of the countries of SSA saw zero or negative economic growth in per capita incomes. Promising businesses were ruined, and new investment virtually stopped, except for the grab for natural resources. Unemployment soared, and working men and women could no longer provide for their families. Schools and health facilities deteriorated badly. The only things that seemed to thrive were poverty, graft, and con•Āāict.
But that was then. Today, all of that has begun to change-not across all of SSA, but across much of the region. Dictators are being replaced by democracy. Authoritarianism is giving way to accountability. Economic stagnation is turning to resurgence, with SSA today one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. Poverty rates are falling. Investors who never would have considered Africa a decade ago are lining up to look at new opportunities. Political con•Āāict has subsided, and governments are strengthening the protection of civil liberties and political freedoms.
About half of the countries in the region have embraced democracy, fragile and imperfect, to be sure, but a far cry from the dictatorships of old. And most important, despair is being replaced by hope-hope that people can live in peace with their neighbors, that parents can provide for their families, that children can go to school and receive decent health care, and that people can speak their minds without fear.
What happened in SSA? How did authoritarianism begin to give way to democracy? How has the economic resurgence affected the move toward democracy, and how has democracy affected the economic turnaround? How is democracy likely to evolve in the future in SSA?
Read the full article on page 32 of USAID’s Frontiers in Development publication.
Cross-posted with permission from the USAID Impact blog. Carol Lancaster is the Vice-Chair of the Board at Vital Voices.