The Princeton University economist Dani Rodrik discusses the reasons that high rates of economic growth among sub-Saharan African countries will not be sustained.
The underlying problem is the weakness of these economies’ structural transformation. East Asian countries grew rapidly by replicating, in a much shorter time frame, what today’s advanced countries did following the Industrial Revolution. They turned their farmers into manufacturing workers, diversified their economies, and exported a range of increasingly sophisticated goods.
Little of this process is taking place in Africa. As researchers at the African Center for Economic Transformation in Accra, Ghana, put it, the continent is “growing rapidly, transforming slowly.”
Two speculative points:
Education might not be the answer (or at least, not public education, and not any longer)
In the case of the industrializing US and later among the Asian tigers, national, regional and local governments successfully engaged in educating their urbanizing populations to prepare them for manufacturing, clerical and other jobs. (See the magisterial, if sketchily written, work of Gilpin and Katz, with my review here, for the link between industrial technologies and public education in the US.)
At present, however, the abilities of those organizations to transform public education, or even—in the case of the US—to provide public education, is increasingly in doubt. Massive shifts in spending from public schools to the private sector, both as private schools per se and as corporate support for public schools. (I believe that the education software market in the US is running about $8 billion per year, with projected increases in response to the common core standards likely to double that by 2018 [something like that, Stanford VLAB event in October bandied these figures about and they stuck in my head]. Equally, the introduction of technology-mediated learning is causing and will increasingly cause transformation of "school-mediated" learning. And this transformation will happen in Africa, despite lagging infrastructure, and might be most profound, because African public schools perform poorly so often, and the effect of mobile technologies will be most profound in non-formal learning.
(Don't believe? 67% of African adults have mobile phone subscriptions [ITU facts and figures 2013].)
Entrepreneurship will be at a premium
In part as a result of shrinking returns to education, and shrinking opportunities in general (after 10 years of growth), entrepreneurship will increase in value, first to individuals and then to governments.(Support for this idea comes from research conducted during the "great recession" in the US.
To recapture its lost relevance, education will increasingly, and with increasing effectiveness, aim to build entrepreneurship skills. (For those of you who care, think of this shift as simply contextualizing the learning process. The context is... survival via business innovation.)