Africa’s Most Unexpected Star Economic Performer

When the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report was released this week, many Sub-Saharan African countries were in the bottom half of the list, something that has been true since the inauguration of the report. But there are exceptions—and a growing lot of them are not just the usual suspects, top performers, South Africa, Mauritius, and Botswana. This year, Namibia comes in fourth place among Africa countries for competiveness. This small Southern African country placed a quite impressive 83rd of 142 countries worldwide.

Namibia is a good example of how a little can go a long way. The country has seen a boom in its mineral exports in recent years fueled by the globally high commodity prices. But it also just made good policy. It didn’t borrow too much during the boom years, so it was able to introduce stimulus when the global financial system went bust in 2008. (Its national debt ranks 23 of 142 nations.) The country gets solid rankings for infrastructure, banking, tax collection, and financial regulation.

Interestingly, Namibia made the list—and made its positive macro-economic changes—at a time when its top economic partners outside of Africa are BRIC countries China, India, and Russia. It’s an interesting counter-example of what many Western commentators have always feared about China’s offers of no-strings-attached capital in particular: that it would discourage responsible policymaking. As you might expect, BRIC countries care about their businesses stability too.  In the coming years, Namibia expects to work with its foreign investors to extend the current boom, largely in the mineral sector, to sectors like manufacturing and service that produce more jobs.

Of course, the challenges are still overwhelming. Namibia performs most poorly on indicators relating to education and quality of the labor force, a fact that is represented in persistently high unemployment and a lack of skilled workers. Higher education scores are particularly low. Despite growth in primary education enrollment in recent years, the same energy hasn’t been put into building better universities, and encouraging students to attend.

But now that the economic infrastructure is off on the right foot, addressing these concerns will be easier—a next natural step as the country moves forward. If this report is any indication, forward is certainly where it’s headed.