ECONOMIC indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), household income and unemployment data are among the most heavily relied on by policy makers looking to evaluate the effectiveness of their prescriptions.
But in a recent survey, a US research firm argues that these classic measures miss the point—that of gauging how people are really feeling.
Why does it matter? The report says leaders disregard this measure at their own risk: few saw Egypt’s Arab Spring coming, but the data did: earlier surveys had consistently showed that while personal incomes were rising, Egyptians, when asked if they felt they were thriving, answered consistently in the negative.
Additionally, surveys of Burkinabes, who have just ousted their president, showed that while just over half had confidence in their national government, the numbers were much lower than in previous years.
The pollsters at Gallup however admit that measuring people’s feelings is largely a grey area, and there are still a lot of people who believe that these are soft “happiness” surveys that have no place in policy.
Notably though, some international organisations such as the United Nations and the OECD have been increasingly incorporating such metrics into their research.
The Global State of Mind 2014 data, modelled on individual evaluations such as of life, safety, food access and jobs, are culled from 137 countries surveyed last year, and bring up some surprising, and useful, information about African countries, which some may interpret as the next “Black Spring” hotspots. The trouble is that they are in some of the most unlikeliest of countries, including currently Botswana, Senegal, Malawi - and the little more troubled Niger.
No jobs…worse than fiddling with term limits?
One of the most cited statistics recently was that nearly two-thirds of Burkina Faso’s population were the youth, and that poverty rates neared 50%, making for deep social discontent.
Gallup in its survey found that people with “good” jobs—those working full time for an employer—tended to rate their wellbeing higher compared to any other respondent category, including the self-employed.
By measuring the Payroll to Population rate—the percentage of the population that is employed full time—researchers were able to project the countries that had the most residents who did not feel all that good about themselves.
Nine of the 10 countries with the lowest employment rates were all in Africa, topped significantly, by Burkina Faso, at a low 5%.
The other countries that made it onto this list were Niger, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Mali, Liberia, Guinea and Tanzania, all scoring under 10%. Perhaps this is where analysts should be looking, instead of DR Congo, Burundi, Benin and other countries where leaders are seeking to fidget with term limits. (See: Compaore ousted, general takes over - should DR Congo, Burundi, Benin leaders be running scared now?)
The unlikely candidate…
Mention Botswana and the image is one of a very peaceful quite democratic country with among the highest per capita incomes in Africa, and a regular table-topper of various governance and democracy surveys.
It would hardly be a candidate for wide social discontent, but it this week received a wake up call when a court foiled President Ian Khama’s bid to pick his brother as vice-president. ( See: Botswana dodges a bullet: Its democracy is safe, but Khama’s ‘authoritarian’ streak is a wake up call).
But among Gallup’s indicators are a few surprise ones about the southern African nation. Evaluations of law and order are used in the survey to gauge people’s sense of personal security, and their experiences with crime and law enforcement. High crime rates can surpress social cohesion, and hit economic growth, it notes.
That walk in the night
To gauge this, respondents were asked if they felt safe waking alone at night in their neighbourhoods. Of the leading four countries they did not, two were not exactly a surprise—in DR Congo, where 27%, the lowest, reported feeling safe— challenges with governance and social order are well documented following years of internal and external conflict, while South Africa’s high crime rates, which saw it place second lowest on this indicator, continue to rile its citizens.
But in Zambia, renowned for years for its tranquility, only 34% reported feeling safe at night. Botswana reported an even lower rate—only 32% would feel safe walking alone at night in their residential city, a surprising finding.
The resource-rich country also ranked low under the Brain Gain indicator— researchers asked respondents if they were likely to move away from the city in the next year, potentially benefiting another country’s economy with their skills.
The poll showed a “clear relationship” between good jobs and people’s attachment to their communities—they were less likely to move if they were employed full time, suggesting underemployment—measured at 20% in the country of two million. On this list Botswana ranked second most likely to have its citizens leave, after Senegal.
Botswana need not fret too much yet, the report did note that media freedom influenced respondent answers, meaning that countries that had a freer press were more likely to answer—or “talk”, in African parlance. On the flip side, concerns persist about authoritarian leadership there.
And 70% of Botswana citizens approve of their country’s leadership, even if the ruling party in elections last month saw its majority whittled down. But so did a majority of Burkinabes one year ago.
Another unlikely one…or not
Rwanda conjures up images of a fast-rising economic tiger with good scores on governance indicators such as on corruption. In the survey, only 9% thought graft was pervasive in government, the lowest score for a sub-Saharan African country.
But pressure groups are often quick to allege that President Paul Kagame affords too little space for alternative thought, with rights campaigner Freedom House firmly ranking it as “Not Free”.
Some 83% of Rwandans also reported feeling safe in their neighbourhoods, placing it in the top five globally in the law and order category.
But in the survey, the country did not feature high on those African countries who approve the leadership highly, even if many of those that gave the highest marks—Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Cameroon—have much the same socio-politico dynamics.
Also, only 2% of Rwandans categorised themselves as “Thriving”, joint lowest with Senegal and Syria, and only beating Afghanistan.
Lots of resource cash, no food on the table…
The survey also asked respondents, in a measure of poverty prevalence, if there had been times over the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food.
The leading African countries that had struggled for food were all resource rich—Niger (78%), Angola (77%), Guinea (76%), Liberia (73%) Sierra Leone (69%) and Zambia at 69%, with half of them being post-conflict.
No African country made it into the top 10 of the opposite side of the survey question.
Niger, Liberia and Sierra Leone (where fears of state failure persist over the Ebola epidemic), and Malawi also placed highly on the unemployment indicator. They could be worth a second look for regional watchers.
Well-being—a mixed bag…
The survey also sought to ask respondents a general question based on many current and future tiered elements—health, quality of life and productivity.
It then classified respondents as either “thriving”, “struggling” or “suffering”. The result was that positive life evaluations are highly correlated to higher income, education level, and health.
Niger and Chad again came in high on this list, in addition to those of unemployment and poverty prevalence, as did surprisingly, Senegal, another African democratic, and economic, star.
Brain Gain—where Senegal is an unexpected star
Researchers also asked respondents if they were likely to move away from the city in the next year, potentially benefiting another country’s economy with their skills.
The poll showed a “clear relationship” between good jobs and people’s attachment to their communities—they were less likely to move if they were employed full time.
Six of the 10 countries where residents were most likely to move away in the next year were African, led by Sierra Leone where 41% indicated mobility. Botswana, Cameroon (both 32%), and Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Ghana (all 31%) also featured in this list.
Senegal’s presence is again notable, though the more cynical would argue that the departure of intellectuals actually helps those in power have an easier ride, through the absence of criticism.
But…all this depends on whom you ask.
A measure of the overall job performance of the country’s leadership also showed differences in African countries, depending on how “free” they were, in part measured by media freedom of expression, and consequently how free citizens are to say what they think of the leadership.
No African country made it into the “free” category, but of those in the “partly free” band, Botswana, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso had the highest approval ratings of their leader, meaning Blaise Compaore single-handedly authored his own downfall.