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Years of economic growth have many in Africa feeling good about their prospects

Years of economic growth have many in Africa feeling good about their prospects
Amina Harun makes a call while selling watermelons at a market in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2005. After years of economic growth in Africa, almost everyone seems to own a cellphone, observes Amadou Sy of the Brookings Institution in Washington. (Khalil Senosi / Associated Press)

The Senegalese capital, on the far western edge of Africa, looks nothing like the sleepy port city that Amadou Sy remembers from his youth.

High-rise buildings are shooting up across the Dakar skyline. Shops and restaurants fill with people, and everyone seems to own a cellphone, or even two.

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Changes like those observed by Sy, who heads the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, have buoyed the outlook of many on a continent that continues to experience high levels of poverty and conflict.

recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that people in major sub-Saharan African nations were feeling more optimistic about their economic prospects than many others around the world.

The region was relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis, producing some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund projects sub-Saharan Africa will see growth of about 4.5%, not as high as in some previous years but a figure that would be the envy of many Western countries, including the U.S.

"I am not as optimistic as the people in the survey, but I am more optimistic than I have been in awhile," Sy said. "I can see there is a window of opportunity — but it is shrinking."

He noted that the region's population has also been growing rapidly. So while the economic expansion represents a notable turnaround from the woes of previous decades, poverty rates have not fallen as quickly as in other parts of the world.

More than 40% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa still live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations, which is preparing to ratify new goals this month that will shape the global development agenda for the next 15 years.

Analysts also see headwinds on the horizon that could alter a rosy economic outlook.

Sub-Saharan Africa has benefited from high oil and other commodities prices, which have started to decline sharply.

An economic slowdown in China and a sluggish recovery in Europe, some of the region's main trading partners, are also causing anxiety among the continent's leaders.

So is the prospect of a hike in U.S. interest rates, which would increase the cost of borrowing on the international market.

Pew's report was based on interviews conducted last spring with more than 9,000 people in nine countries that together account for about half the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

The countries selected — Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda — are generally regarded as among the more stable on the continent.

"You wouldn't get the same results from some of the old-school dictator, badly performing countries," said Staci Warden, executive director of the Center for Financial Markets at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica.

The findings in Burkina Faso also might have been different had the survey been conducted after this week's military coup, rather than after a popular uprising that last year unseated one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, President Blaise Compaore.

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"But there are up-and-coming countries," Warden said, many of which have seen economic growth rates topping 5%, rapid urbanization, the emergence of a growing middle class, peaceful political transitions and better government policymaking.

The countries selected for the Pew poll represent a wide geographic spread and different levels of development, which is reflected in the findings, said Katie Simmons, one of the study's authors.

More than eight in 10 people who participated in the poll in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Uganda said their countries need more foreign aid, compared with 26% in South Africa, which has the highest per-capita income among the countries in the study.

Across the nine nations, a median of 60% said they expect their country's economy to improve over the next year, a higher figure than in any other regions. Latin America came in second at 44%, trailed by the United States at 34% and Europe a distant 24%.

Many Africans were also optimistic about the economic prospects for the next generation. A median of 56% believed that today's children would be better off financially than their parents.

But they saw serious problems in their countries, chief among them insufficient jobs and poor-quality healthcare and schools.

Although most of the respondents said they were at least somewhat confident that their governments would solve the major problems in their countries, they also had criticisms. A large majority considered government corruption a big problem, the study said.

Foreign aid groups and businesses also received largely favorable ratings. But some participants had concerns about inefficiency and corruption in the nonprofit sector, as well as the environmental impact of the oil and mining sectors.

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