Book club: Africa's Moment

Finbarr Bermingham enjoys a work which provides a fresh perspective on the world's most rapidly changing continent

Africa's Moment

Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray

Polity Press, 2011

"The twenty-first century will be the century of Africa." It's a bold catchline, but the authors of Africa's Moment tend not to pull their punches. The book was written to dispel myths and awaken parts of the West to a reality that's unfolding almost unnoticed beneath their noses. Africa is no longer the primitive dustbowl it's often still depicted as in mainstream media. While the plagues of famine, drought and ferocious civil war (although many historic conflicts have now ground to a halt) continue to cast a long shadow, half a century of independence has brought massive advancement. Of the five continents, Africa's economy is growing fastest. Africa is experiencing the biggest population boom in history - more than two billion people now live there - and its "phenomenon of urbanisation is the most rapid the planet has ever known". Africa's Moment is a frequently fascinating, comprehensive assessment of where the continent stands now, economically and sociologically, and where it's likely to go in the future.

Concentrating their studies mostly on Sub-Saharan Africa, the book is painstakingly researched. Eye-opening statistics are backed up by enlightening field research reports. The authors, Jean-Michel Severino, a former director at Agence française de développement, a French international development agency, and Olivier Ray, his former colleague, relate their experiences in Africa anecdotally and as such, assume the reader has a certain amount of prior knowledge. They skip breathlessly from Maputo to Niamey, from Lilongwe to Gaborone, so if African geography isn't your forte, it may be best to read this one with an atlas within reach. Their first hand experiences on the continent, however, give the issues discussed in the book a human dimension. For example, we're all aware of the perilous situation faced by African migrants trying to sail illegally into Europe, but how many of us knew that those setting out are usually of prosperous standing? It's nuggets of insight like these, dropped casually into the prose, that help make Africa's Moment as readable as it is.

The book has the all-embracing structure necessary to tackle a topic as vast as the one it takes on. It examines why it's taken Africa this long to start growing in earnest economically, debunking half-truths and myths (for instance, that Africa's erstwhile stagnation was simply the result of being African and thus being burdened with a troubled history). It looks at the effect of emigration both internally and externally, suggesting that emigration to Europe actually benefits the continent economically due to the tradition of sending money home, and explaining how greater unity and looser borders between African countries are encouraging economic growth. Without glossing over the difficulties Africa faces, it has an undoubtedly positive tone.

Africa's Moment first appeared in French early last year. The translation, while generally fine, is occasionally clunky, perhaps losing some of the elegance originally intended. Overall, the book has an entertaining style and is relatively accessible, but may be a bridge too far for those without a longstanding interest in African economics. Few stones are left unturned in the authors' quest to understand the continent, but a greater focus on post-colonial approaches would have helped contextualise the issues discussed. To what extent do the talons of the past remain lodged in the flesh of a burgeoning Africa? The book's faults, though, are few. Barely a century ago, the eastern economies of China, Korea and Indonesia were at similar stages to many African nations today. But whether in a hundred years we'll be speaking about Africa in the tones in which we now refer to East Asia remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that Africa's development is going to be fascinating to watch.