June 26, 2015 | by Donald Cassell Print

German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that there were three themes worthy of the philosophical enterprise: God, the immortality of the human soul, and the meaning of human freedom. While human civilized order has wrestled with each of these themes, the role, extent, and definition of human freedom is central to modern society. What does it mean to be free? Is it a bacchanalia freefall or an ordered and virtuous society? Is it marked by discipline, character, learning, responsibility, and law? With its fragile development progress, Africa may be at the crossroads of this discussion of the role of freedom in society. Development should be about the expansion of human freedom, giving men and women opportunities to exercise reasoned agency as responsible persons.1

This brief summary unfolds a growing sociopolitical-economic freedom in Africa, but also highlights a concern that it should be entrenched and deepened by character and learning, discipline, law, and good order. The partnership of the international community, both public and private, will be needed to help sustain the growth of freedom and law in Africa.

Despite Ebola, Africa is rising. Since the 1990s, Africa has witnessed a change in its fortunes: the Cold War ended, apartheid was repealed, Marxism came to naught, and many cruel dictators lost their support. Africa is experiencing increased political and economic development, which is empowering African citizens to move out of poverty, develop their human capital, and continue development. While Africa’s growth is impressive, it is fragile and must be considered with cautious optimism.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance continues to show steady progress toward political development, with 39 of 52 nations improving in overall governance during the past five years.2

There have been 30 regime changes through the electoral process, and a number of governments now adhere to basic political and civil rights. In addition, the number of civil conflicts declined from 12 to 3 or 4 since the 1990s.3

Changes in Africa may reflect profound irreversible changes in cultural patterns and self-knowledge, a result of a paradigm shift philosophically and spiritually. New ideas may be playing an important role in Africa’s rise in the growth of Christianity on the continent. However, these gains have ostensibly been attributable to global demand for commodities, the rise of Asia and other emerging economies, particularly China and India, new African leadership, structural reforms, and better economic management.

Increased political stability has, in turn, contributed to greater economic development. In 2015, Bloomberg predicted that two of the top six fastest-growing economies would be in Africa.4 This summer, Business Insider ranked six sub-Saharan countries in the top 13 fastest growing economies in the world.5 Correspondingly, trade and investment within Africa has doubled while Africa’s trade with the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent.6

Other indicators of political and economic development include increased intra-African investment and trade, a 50 percent increase in average income since the mid-1990s, annual labor productivity increases of 2.7 percent, a growing middle class consisting of 85 million households with discretionary incomes, and a reduction in poverty from 59 to 48 percent.7, 8, 9 In turn, school enrollment is rising and health indicators are improving.6 Access to water, sanitation, and electricity is steadily improving, 50 percent of Africa’s roads are now rated as “good,” and access to telephones has grown by more than 320 percent.10

Africa has benefited considerably from access to new technology, namely mobile phones and the Internet. The continent had more than 600 million mobile phone subscribers, of which approximately 10 percent may have mobile internet services.6 Furthermore, a median growth rate of 27 percent for mobile phone ownership has been recorded from 2008–2014.11 Access to water, Africa has lately managed the resource boom better than it has historically, implementing more responsible policies around resource extraction for wider economic benefit. Other industries hold real value for Africa, as well, such as agriculture, tourism, infrastructure and energy, education, research, information and communications technology (ICT), banking and finance, consumer products, and construction. Manufacturing presently represents one third of Africa’s total exports.

More of Africa’s financing comes from private sources in the form of remittances, private philanthropy, foreign direct investment (FDI), and short-term capital — amounting to roughly $90 billion. FDI has gone not only to the extractive industry sector, but also to the non-extractive industry sectors of the economy. Even for official aid channels, African countries have found alternatives in China and India as new bilateral partners. The international donor community has changed its relationship with African governments for the better, asking recipient countries to define their needs and to focus more on poverty reduction and economic growth.

Africa’s future looks bright. In 2040, there will be 1.1 billion working-age Africans, representing the world’s largest working-age population.12 If managed well, the increase in working-age Africans, coupled with continued human capital development, should allow households with discretionary incomes to grow to 128 million over the next decade, with consumer spending expanding to $1.4 trillion — up from the $860 billion consumer spending in 2008.8 In that same time frame, Africans should manage a collective GDP of $2.6 trillion, a $1 trillion increase from their 2008 GDP.8

Implications and Conclusions

Africa’s encouraging trends in sociopolitical economic freedom are relatively new and fragile, so optimism must be accompanied by caution. Africa is still a hard place to live — drought, deforestation, and desertification threaten the continent; food production that has slumped since independence has not recovered; and the world’s most inept states are between the Sahara and the Kalahari deserts.6 Civil unrest, regime instability, economic hardship, and corruption are still more prevalent in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Skilled labor and management capacity are scarce. Rebuilding after Ebola could prove rather costly.

It will take time to establish a firm foundation upon which to build and undo the damage done by generations of misrule and error. Africa needs to continue to implement responsible economic policies, foster political stability and efficiency, curb disease and poverty, improve infrastructure, and develop human capital. Principled leadership, zero tolerance for corruption, and a strong sense of confidence are necessary to execute these policy initiatives. Some informed observers believe that Africa’s rise will last because the changes are structural, substantial, and deep.

Africa’s development is contingent on its human capital. Aristotle noted that “it is clear then that in household management the people are of greater importance than the material property, and their quality of more account than that of the goods that make up their wealth.”13 Investing in African people will likely be the most strategic decision offering the best possibility for infinite returns.14 Good education and training allow good governance and rule of law to become entrenched and human society to flourish. “If people do not change, little else changes in the long run.”15 “The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character.”16 Freedom is preserved in character and learning.

Africa is emerging from a long period of decline. Africans are becoming more confident in their engagement and partnership with the rest of the world. Africa and its international partners will need to hold themselves more accountable for the results of development policies. “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility (Vaclav Havel).” For the foreseeable future, Africa will still need the partnership of the international community.


1 Sen, Amartyr Kumar. “Development as Freedom.” Knopf. 1999.

2 Ibrahim, Mo. “Ibrahim Index of African Governance: Summary Report.” Mo Ibrahim Foundation. 2014.

3 Okono-Iweaka, Ngozi. “Want to Help Africa? Do Business Here.” 2007.

4 Robinson, Josh. “The 20 Fastest-Growing Economies This Year.” Bloomberg. 2015.

5 Holodny, Elena. “The 13 fastest-growing economies in the world.” Business Insider. 2015.

6 The Economist. “The Sun Shines Bright.” The Economist. December 3, 2011.

7 McKinsey and Company. “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies.” 2010.

8 Ernst & Young. “Growing in Africa: Capturing the Opportunity for Global Consumer Products Businesses. Ernst & Young Investments. 2011.

9 Radelet, Steven. “Brief: Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way.” Center for Global Development. 2010.

10 Accenture. “Expansion into Africa: Challenges and Success Factors Revealed.” 2009.

11 Gallup. “African Continues Going Mobile.” Gallup. May 1, 2014.

12 McKinsey and Company. “McKinsey on Africa: A Continent on the Move.” 2010.

13 Aristotle. “The Politics.” Baltimore: Penguin. 1962

14 Ncube, Mthuli, and Fairbanks, Michael. “How could Africa use China to spur economic development?” Financial Times. 2013.

15 Myers, Bryant L. “Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.” Maryknowll, NY: Orbis Books. 1999.

16 Durant, Will and Ariel. The Lessons of History. Simon & Schuster. 1968.