JOHANNESBURG, South Africa —African leaders, foreign investors and formal indicators of economic growth may say that "Africa is rising" - but most ordinary Africans don't agree.
A pioneering new survey of public opinion in 34 countries across the continent suggests that the relatively high average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) reported in recent years is not reflected in the experiences of most citizens.
An average of one in five Africans still often goes without food, clean water or medical care. Only one in three think economic conditions in their country are good. Fifty-three percent say they are "fairly bad" or "very bad".
The survey suggests that either the benefits of growth are being disproportionately channelled to a wealthy elite or that official statistics are overstating average growth rates (or possibly a combination of both).
The survey was directed by Afrobarometer, a research project coordinated by independent institutions in Ghana, Benin, Kenya and South Africa, with partners in 31 other countries. Afrobarometer says the margin of error in its face-to-face public opinion surveys is around two percent. It has been surveying public opinion in 12 countries since 1999, but has grown to include 35 countries for the period 2011 to 2013.
The results of the latest survey - released in Johannesburg on Tuesday - are the first to reflect public opinion across such a wide swathe of the continent. Interviews for the survey were carried out between October 2011 and June this year.
Speaking at the release of the results, Boniface Dulani of the University of Malawi, the project's operational field manager, said they indicated that three-quarters of Africans thought their governments were doing badly in closing the gap between rich and poor. Nevertheless, most remained optimistic about the future - with west and north Africans more optimistic than east Africans, and southern Africans "somewhere in the middle".
A policy brief analysing the results said the data, "based on the views and experiences of ordinary citizens", shed light on the debate over whether growth is helping reduce poverty, "suggesting that doubts about the extent of progress achieved in the fight against poverty are well founded".
In the 16 countries surveyed over a period of a decade, there was little evidence for systematic reduction of the poverty experienced by ordinary citizens, despite average GDP growth rates of 4.8 percent, the brief added.
While "lived poverty" was reduced in Cape Verde, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it increased in Botswana, Mali, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
Professsor Robert Mattes of the University of Cape Town, a co-director of the project, said the data suggested that the reduction in poverty in Zimbabwe was a consequence of the formation of a coalition government after the 2008 elections.
Respondents across all 34 countries were asked how often they had gone without basic necessities in the past year:
• 53 percent of the sample said they had sometimes gone without medical care, with 20 percent saying they had gone without many times;
• 50 percent said they had gone without food sometimes (17 percent many times);
• 49 percent had gone without water sometimes (21 percent many times);
• 41 percent had gone without cooking fuel sometimes (13 percent many times); and
• 76 percent said they had gone without cash income sometimes in the past year (44 percent many times).
Other findings of the survey:
• "People in Burundi, Guinea, Niger, Senegal and Togo experienced the highest average levels of lived poverty, while those living in Algeria and Mauritius experienced the lowest.
• "People living in countries undergoing or emerging from conflicts appear to be particularly vulnerable to lived poverty, especially food shortages. Five of the seven countries that experience the highest levels of nutritional deprivation - Burundi, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Niger - are all emerging from recent conflicts. And the two worst performers in North Africa - Egypt and Sudan - have recently faced internal conflicts as well.
• "Comparing regional experiences of lived poverty, we find that both West and East Africans encounter the most shortages, while North Africans experience the lowest levels of deprivation."
Afrobarometer also said that rural people tended to be poorer than citizens living in urban areas, and that those with access to electricity, water, paved roads, sewage systems and health clinics were usually better off than those without.
Countries included in the 2013 results are: Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Results from Ethiopia, the 35th country to be surveyed, are still being compiled.
The core partners coordinating the Afrobarometer are the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin, the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa and the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University in the United States, backed by another 30 independent research institutes in universities and the private sector in each of the countries surveyed.