"Pheew!" on the NYT and Pew Center Poll
About Improvement of Life in Africa

Michael H. Glantz
1 August

"Pheew!" on the NYT and Pew Center Poll
about Improvement of Life in Africa

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" appears to be the takeaway message from the headline of an article that appeared in the 24 July 2007 New York Times, entitled "Improvement in Life Seen in Sub-Saharan Africa." This article is so incredible (unbelievable as opposed to fantastic) that I felt compelled on behalf of the people in ten African countries to say what I think: this represents either bad journalism by an editor who chose a title without having read the text, or he's looking for a bright side to a bleak situation on the African continent. Either way, it is misleading to the readers and a disservice to Africans struggling day by day to keep their families alive and together.


Many people skim a newspaper and look at the headlines first. Often, I would argue, the reader goes no further than the headline. The headline for the article on the Pew Center's Global Attitudes project suggests that sub-Saharan Africa is finally on the path to development and a better life for its citizens. With this particular article's headline in mind, a reader could erroneously conclude that life on the African continent has improved substantially, since the survey was undertaken by a reputable survey center (Pew) and reported in a reliable newspaper (New York Times). Nothing could be further from the reality of life in Africa.

The following statements contain some questionable (to me) excerpts from the article and the survey:

  • "A plurality of Africans say they are better off today than they were five years ago and are optimistic about their future and that of the next generation, according to a poll conducted in ten sub-Saharan countries," by the New York Times and the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
  • "It found that, in the main, Africans are satisfied with their national governments, and a majority of respondents in 7 of the 10 countries said their economic situation was at least somewhat good." What does "somewhat good" mean? What does it mean that "in the main, Africans are satisfied with their national governments"?
  • Immediately after the "Africans are satisfied" phrase was the following statement: "But many said they faced a wide array of difficult and sometimes life-threatening problems, from illegal drug trafficking to political corruption, from the lack of clean water to inadequate schools for their children, from ethnic and political violence to deadly disease."
  • The article refers to the probable error in the survey, noting that "the margins of sampling error were plus or minus either 3 or 4 percentage points." Such a statement implies that the survey results were sound and robust. Given the caveats and the information in the article, I can only believe that such surveys are of little value, highly misleading, and may even be detrimental to those the pollsters might have been intended to help.

The article then goes on to mention several of the adversities that Africans face every hour of every day of every year:

  • The results showed that the struggle for democracy and good governance in Africa is more like a patchwork of gains and setbacks than a steady tide of progress across a continent that has suffered some of the worst instances of misrule.
  • While all of the countries polled are nominally democracies, half of them have suffered serious rollbacks of multiparty representational government in recent years. A majority in each country said corrupt leaders were a big problem.
  • The most recent elections in Ethiopia and Uganda were marred by violence and the exclusion of major candidates, and failed to meet international standards of fairness; they were considerable setbacks for countries that a decade ago were seen as rising examples of Africa's democratic future.
  • Electoral trouble has even tinged Senegal, often seen as a beacon in the volatile West African region because it has never had a coup and has a long tradition of democracy. This year, opposition parties boycotted legislative elections there over accusations of election fraud.
  • In Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and top oil producer, the poll results reflect frustration with the way elections are carried out -- 67 percent of Nigerians said that their next presidential election would not be conducted fairly.
  • Asked if they were generally satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country [Nigeria], 87 percent of those interviewed for the survey said they were dissatisfied. yet Nigerians were the most optimistic of all the nation surveyed -- 69 percent said they expected children growing up in Nigeria would be better off than people today.
  • We have seen significant strides for democratic liberty and practices in the last 10 or 15 years. It is also a fact that in most of their countries, average citizens have seen a significant improvement in their material circumstances and their living conditions.
  • A plurality of respondents said that their financial situation had improved in the last five years, with the exception of the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Uganda.
  • But more resource wealth has not necessarily led to broad prosperity. Of the respondents in Nigeria, 82 percent said average people were not benefiting from the country's oil wealth.
  • Other health concerns weighed heavily on most respondents. Gaining access to clean drinking water was seen as a big problem for a majority in all ten countries, ranging from 86 percent who noted it in Ethiopia, to 58 percent in urban South Africa. About half or more in 8 countries said that they had been unable to pay for medical care.
  • But hunger seemed less of a problem -- a majority of respondents in all but Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania said they had enough money to buy the food their family needed.
  • Large majorities said poor schools were a major problem, and many respondents said that it was harder to provide an education for their children than to get food for them.

How, then, do these statements match the message given in the title of the New York Times article, "Improvement in Life Seen in Sub-Saharan Africa"? Putting a verbal happy face on a depressing situation does not change the situation.

The bottom line is that I am confused by the article and the survey as well. Given the caveats in footnotes (for example, in the Ivory Coast only urban dwellers were interviewed), I cannot reconcile the findings of this poll as it relates to sub-Saharan Africa to the writings and reports coming out of the continent.

Joseph Conrad once expressed the view that "Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality." I think he may be right with regard to this poll. If I am wrong, I'd like to know. What do you think? Check out the survey at http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=257.

--Michael H. Glantz

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