Grievances over social inequality in Africa can lead to revolt, says Siegmar Schmidt of the Bertelsmann Foundation. Governments should seek to close this gap and minimise the potential for conflict.
The Bertelsmann Foundation, one of Germany's biggest private foundations, publishes its Transformation Index (BTI) every two years. The report looks at how the political and economic situation in 129 countries across the globe is changing. The latest report was presented to the public at Deutsche Welle's broadcasting center in Bonn on Wednesday (22.01.2014). To find out whether German perceptions of Africa reflect what is actually happening on the continent, DW spoke to Bertelsmann's regional coordinator for East and South Africa, Siegmar Schmidt.
DW: The media portray Africa as a continent of opportunities that has taken great strides as far as political and economic development is concerned. Is that also a trend shown in the BTI?
Siegmar Schmidt: There is even talk about the "young lions", but I think this is being overly optimistic, actually it is exaggerated. The BTI clearly shows that only very few countries have made substantial economic progress during the last two years. The problem is that the growth rates are impressive, especially in oil production or raw material exportation, but structural problems are always overlooked and structural problems may cause instability in the long run.
What kind of structural problems do you see?
The country, especially the government, benefits from growth rates from export. But the problem is that inequality persists in many countries, so we have very high unemployment rates, we have growing distribution gaps and this makes the people angry. Grievance is one of the reasons for revolt. So in the long run, this dissatisfaction and lack of trust in the government can also cause a readiness to participate in protests and sometimes even to take up arms.
Which countries are the greatest winners and the greatest losers in Africa in this year's BTI?
The greatest loser I would say is clearly Mali. If you look up the scores they have a minus of 2.9 in terms of democracy but also in the field of economy there was a sharp decline. I would say in southern Africa, it's Angola in democratic terms. But the changes are not as huge as in West Africa and central Africa.
What about central Africa and eastern Africa?
Well, you have Central African Republic and we all know what is happening there. There is civil war, it might be a failed state. There's a lot of talk about intervention. In East Africa, I think the danger is Eritrea. Eritrea has turned to become really an autocratic country. Many people are fleeing from Eritrea. Many of the refugees we have in Europe are coming from Eritrea. Just recently there was a revolt by army officers and I think this can happen again. I am not sure how long the system can perform like this with the massive repression of all people.
Which countries are setting positive examples?
Positive examples in southern Africa are Lesotho, because of the elections, and Malawi, because President Joyce Banda is doing a good job so far. In West Africa I think it is clearly Ivory Coast. It is a post -conflict state but it is trying hard to go back to its normality. But I am not optimistic that this positive trend will last.
What would be your recommendations to African governments to make sure stability persists or improves in their countries?
There are two things, first of all they should try to include the people. Build institutions or parties, for example, who are real parties and not vehicles of very ambitious leaders. And try to fight poverty and the huge and increasing income gaps. This is what makes people bitter and there is a feeling of grievance. Social policy, an active social policy, probably together with donor countries, would reduce the potential for conflict.
Siegmar Schmidt is the regional coordinator for East and South Africa at the Bertelsmann Foundation.
Interview: Daniel Pelz