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The two Africas

In May 2000, The Economist ran a cover story on Africa under the headline, “The Hopeless Continent.” The article detailed violence and disease ravaging the region — the cover pictured a fighter with a weapon on his shoulder framed by an African map. In December 2011, Africa was again on the cover of The Economist, only this time the story was quite different. This time, the cover read, “Africa Rising” and pictured a boy flying a colorful Africa-shaped kite.

What caused The Economist to change its mind about Africa? Since 2000, the continent has seen a 200% increase in trade with the rest of the word, contributing to rapid economic expansion. At least a dozen African economies have grown by more than 6% a year for six or more years. A 2011 World Bank report declared that “Africa could be on the brink of an economic take-off, much like China was 30 years ago and India 20 years ago.”

This growth of many of Africa's economies has been made possible, in part, by success in the fight against communicable diseases. Malaria mortality rates, to cite just one example, have decreased by 33% in the World Health Organization's African Region since 2000. According to the WHO's World Malaria Report 2011, 8 countries and one area in the African region have reduced either confirmed malaria cases or malaria admissions and deaths by more than 50% in recent years.

And yet for all the good news coming out of Africa today, many of the obstacles described in 2000 remain. Only eight percent of Africans earn USD 10,000 or more a year — with 82% earning less than USD 3,600. The WHO 2011 African Regional Health Report reveals just how many health-related challenges Africa still faces. The WHO Africa Region includes 60% of HIV/AIDS patients, despite amounting to only 11% of the world's population. The WHO Report also found that Africa accounts for 19 of the 20 countries across the globe with the highest maternal mortality ratios.

Often the growing and poverty-stricken Africas exist side-by-side. The economy of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is expanding rapidly. The IMF projects that GDP will grow 5.5% in 2012, compared to 1.8% and -0.5% for the US and Euro Area respectively. And yet according to the WHO report, only 58% of people living in the region have access to safe water supplies.

Perhaps it’s fair to say, then, that both of The Economist cover headlines are an oversimplification. The data suggest that it may no longer make sense to think of Africa as one coherent unit, but rather as an economically diverse territory with widely varying health challenges. A better way to think of Africa may be to think of two Africas, one that is developing rapidly and one that is still struggling to overcome the problems of the past.

The road ahead may be challenging, but the goal is clear: one Africa that, while culturally diverse, is united in great health and economic growth.