Your dreams were not valid in Africa until recently, but thankfully, fortunes are changing

Study shows that your chances of having better economic prospects than your parents have been relatively low in Africa

IF your father is a peasant farmer, and your grandfather was too, what are the chances that you’ll make something different of your life?

One of the ideas underpinning the modern capitalist economy is that you can be anything you want to be.

Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o in her Oscar acceptance speech a year ago put it memorably, saying to children everywhere that, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

It’s what defines the famous “American dream”, and in even African politics, despite many barriers that may block your path to self-actualisation, even the most dictatorial African state would never officially sanction the idea of a rigid caste system.

But one study examining intergenerational mobility – your chances of having better economic prospects than your parents – reveals it has been relatively low in Africa.

The study looked at five African countries: Ghana, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Madagascar, using a set of nine surveys conducted in the 1980s to early 2000s, to get a sense of the shift through generations.

The five countries have a similar economic and labour market composition – all have a large rural population with agriculture as the backbone of the economy and limited earnings from natural resources (except Ghana, recently becoming an oil exporter).

When computed over arable land, population density is  similar across the five countries, and the vast majority of agricultural workers are smallholder farmers.

Because most African economies are not growing fast enough to keep up with demographic pressures, young people entering the labour market often have to accept whatever job they are lucky to get, with the hopes that there will be better opportunities in the future.

But the study found that whatever kind of job you start out in is the field you were probably going remain in for the long term.

They found that once a person starts working – in whatever job they are lucky to get – transitions were rare, particularly if you were working in agriculture.

All in the family

They found the occupation of parents is a huge determinant in where their children were likely to end up working: the sons of farmers were 4 to 22 times as likely to be farmers themselves, than the sons of non-farmers were.

Over the course of a decade, only about 10% of workers transitioned between farm and non-farm jobs.

But the low economic mobility is not uniform across the five countries. The two former British colonies, Ghana and Uganda, record a much higher mobility than the French colonies – Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar.

The researchers’  results reveal that having a father farmer raised the odds of staying in the locality of birth in every country except Ghana.

In the three former French colonies, a farmer’s son was at least three times more likely to stay in his home village for the rest of his life, than those whose fathers were not farmers. In Uganda it’s 1.7 times more likely; Ghana showing no difference.

Thus, internal migration was not only less frequent in former French colonies but non-farmer’s sons have a much better chance of advancement. How can we explain the variations?

Education has something to do with it. The researchers found that French colonial policy intended to provide a secular, excellent, Paris-standard education for a small urban elite, while the British encouraged and subsidised missionaries in providing at least a basic education to the masses, if only to read the Bible.

It makes literacy rates higher in Anglophone Africa, which gives people the chance to make something better of their lives.

Mobility, in a literal sense, implies movement. It seems obvious, but it’s crucial in explaining the social rigidity in the French colonies.

Historically, road networks were far less dense in Francophone Africa, even when comparing roads in only the arable districts, to remove the distortion of the vast desert lands of much of French West Africa.

Even as recently as 2001, Anglophone Africa overall had 4,861km of road per 1,000 square km of arable land, while the road density in Francophone Africa was just 1,425km over the same area.

So even if you had a dream burning inside you, travelling to Abidjan, Antananarivo or Conakry was a real hurdle.

Returns on education

But there’s a flip side. Because geographical and educational mobility was more broadly accessible in the British colonies, education in itself was “less selective and had less sorting power”, the researchers say; and the returns on education on the labour market are more limited.

In other words, just being educated does not give you any exceptional advantage, because others are educated too.

But in the French colonies, although education was scarce, if you were lucky enough to get it, you would be part of a small elite whose skills were in high demand – guaranteeing you membership to an exclusive club.

Intergenerational mobility in contemporary Africa still reflects these contrasting colonial policies, but expansion in primary duration and the changing structure of African economies may improve rigid economic outcomes.

The service sector provides an easy, ‘low barrier to entry’ route to changing your fortunes. Data from the African Development Bank indicates Africa’s service exports grew 6% from the previous year, and although commodities still account for lion’s share of the continent’s exports, transportation, real estate, financial services, IT and telecommunications are increasingly contributing to economic growth.

And the high informality in nearly all sectors of many African economies may end up being the continent’s saving grace. 

Despite low wages, unpredictable terms and almost no benefits, the informal sector employs more than three out of four workers in many African countries, including Cameroon (73%) Ethiopia (85%), and Sierra Leone (88%), and accounts for up to 80% of new jobs created in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda.

But growing evidence points to young people being drawn to the informal sector not by circumstance but by choice. Informality provides an opportunity to ‘squeeze through the cracks’, and make it to the top.


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