Are you optimistic about your future? Do you think that, in five years, your life will be better than it is now? If you live in sub-Saharan Africa, your answer is probably a strong, “Yes,” according to a recent Gallup poll. It is, by far, the most optimistic region in the world. In countries like Burkina Faso, Comoros, and Niger, nearly all citizens are looking forward to a better future.
But the conclusion that Gallup draws about the reason for the optimism stands on trite, stale notions of Africa (of course, regarded as a single entity, though there are over 55 countries on the continent) as a place of unremitting war, poverty, and suffering.
It’s a remarkably uninformed and improper explanation from the venerable organization, and it should be changed to reflect an obvious reality: People are optimistic about their future because their recent pasts give them reason to be optimistic about their futures, too.
The poll looked at respondents’ answers to the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale, which works like this: "Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top." The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.
On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now?
The common characteristic of 14 of the top 15? Geography:
Excluding Turkmenistan, they’re all in sub-Saharan Africa.
What’s going on here? Gallup offers two explanations.
First, because the scale is relative, if a person indicates that right now they’re “at the top of their ladder,” by definition they can’t be more optimistic about the future. Unfortunately, there’s not enough free, publicly-available data to get a sense for how much this affects the results.
Gallup completely misses the mark in its second explanation:
“Some of the most optimistic countries are those with the lowest current life ratings, reflecting the belief that their current situations are poor and can only get better. Optimism may be more widespread in these countries simply because people cannot imagine that their lives could get any worse.”
That claim doesn’t hold up to even the barest scrutiny. It’s destructive and pernicious to view sub-Saharan African countries as little more than places where life can’t get worse.
Three simple anecdotes should help show why:
- Almost 20 years ago, 800,000 Rwandans – men, women, and children – were massacred in genocide
- The DRC’s current issues are dwarfed by its issues 15 years ago, when two massive wars led to an estimated 5,400,000 Congolese dying from starvation and disease.
I suspect Rwandans, Congolese, and Ugandans can pretty easily imagine their lives being worse than they are today.
Getting past simple anecdotes, though, let’s use Gallup’s own publicly-available data to see if they’re making a data-driven explanation, or defaulting to lazy tropes.
Above are the mean Cantril scores for almost all of the most optimistic countries (Comoros’ data was tough to find), with the BRICs for comparison. Some of the African countries which just can’t possibly get any worse are, on average, currently more satisfied than India, China, and South Africa.
Do you think Gallup would argue that Indians and Chinese believe their lives couldn’t get any worse?
Let’s take it one step further, and look at the recent past for these countries, using economic growth and maternal mortality as general indicators of improvement:
Most of the optimistic countries have seen high economic growth and improvements in health in recent years. In other words, life’s already better than it was, and there’s every reason to think it’s going to be even better in five years.
These countries are optimistic because the recent past gives them reason to feel good about the future.
If Greece was growing at 7% annually, it’d be optimistic, too. It’s not, and it isn’t; 38% of Greeks believe their lives will be worse in five years.
To be sure, absolute per capita GDP is incredibly low in many of these countries, and too many mothers will not live to see their children grow up all across the region. We all hope that the future will be better than the present.
But it’s not because “things can’t get worse,” a false statement that leads to readers having an extremely distorted view of sub-Saharan Africa.