Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Well-Being Costs of Rapid Growth: The Paradox of Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 10:15 AM
Merrick II (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Soumya Chattopadhyay, University of Maryland
Sub-Saharan African countries have had a decade of remarkable economic performance. By some estimates, seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world over the last ten years are in this region. The cumulative GDP growth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa during this period has been around 5.2 percent per year, far exceeding the average 3.9 percent for developing countries. Recent efforts, by governments themselves and by their key international partners, now seek to sustain this growth trajectory. While these achievements are being rightly lauded and encouraged, what has been missing is a discussion of the impact that these developments have had on the well-being of the people, and on their quality of life.

This paper uses the metrics and analytical framework of subjective well-being and Gallup World Poll survey data to analyze the well-being effect of this rapid economic growth on the citizens of these African countries. The key hypothesis, that results support, is that rapid economic growth, while eventually beneficial in the aggregate, is inherently destabilizing in the interim period during which established norms and institutions break down. It leaves a great number of people more vulnerable and hurts their perception of personal well-being – particularly in conditions of weak social safety nets that are incapable of providing adequate welfare support.

This paper also highlights the impact on specific cohorts within these countries – rural migrants, women, the elderly, and the low skilled workers. These groups are exposed to even more dramatic changes in opportunities and rewards systems from major economic transformations - upsetting existing balances, and leaving them with little scope for maneuver. The African growth experience is marked by continued weaknesses in institutional and governance capability, rapid population increases, and growing urbanization despite inadequate infrastructure – all of which aggravate people’s existing frustration and disillusionment.

Such associations between rapid aggregate economic growth and yet falling levels of well-being, termed as “the paradox of unhappy growth”, have been witnessed previously in other regions of the world under similar circumstances – in Eastern Europe during the decade of the 1990s and in Latin America during 2000-2008. Their experience is instructive: countries such as Hungary and Chile that moderated their growth agenda with concern for social equity and justice performed much better in the long term: Countries that did not, suffered severe social unrest, and prolonged poor economic performance.

This paper uses empirical evidence from the survey analysis to demonstrate that the existing growth process is failing entire sections of the population. It argues that while the pursuit of economic growth is necessary, a focus on the nature of this process is just as critical. The concern here is that if the detrimental effects of rapid growth on well-being remain ignored, and if the conditions that amplify people’s sense of vulnerability are not addressed, the resulting public resentment may undermine the sustainability of African’s promising growth process in the long run. A paradox of progress, perhaps: but one that needs to be addressed.