Are conditions in Africa medieval?

Not in the slightest, writes Charles Kenny in FP.

It’s true that some countries in the region are as poor as England under William the Conqueror, but that doesn’t mean Africa’s on the verge of doomsday. How many serfs had a cellphone? More than 63 million Nigerians do. Millions travel on buses and trucks across the continent each year, even if the average African road is still fairly bumpy.

The list of modern technologies now ubiquitous in the region also includes cement, corrugated iron, steel wire, piping, plastic sheeting and containers, synthetic and cheap cotton clothing, rubber-soled shoes, bicycles, butane, paraffin candles, pens, paper, books, radios, televisions, vaccines, antibiotics, and bed nets.

The spread of these technologies has helped expand economies, improve quality of life, and extend health. About 10 percent of infants die in their first year of life in Africa — still shockingly high, but considerably lower than the European average less than 100 years ago, let alone 800 years past. And about two thirds of Africans are literate — a level achieved in Spain only in the 1920s.

Kenny’s point: let’s not undersell progress in Africa just because it has yet to show up in GDP. On other measures of development there has been unprecedented advance.

I’d add that, in spite of the nasty and brutal politics present in some corners of the continent, Africans exercise more voice in their own affairs than ever before, especially women and youth.

The literacy figure I find hard to buy, though. Are we sure this isn’t two-thirds of the Africans we have data on? Not a representative sample. If by literate we mean able to read a newspaper, I think we have a long way to two thirds.