South African FlagThere are so many different kinds of cultures, governments, and physical environments in Africa south of the Sahara that generalizations can be misleading.  It is not all just chaos and misery, though as whole, this part of the world has made less economic progress than any other large region.  Particularly compared to the immense economic growth in East Asia, much of South and Southeast Asia, and most of Latin America, Africa has lagged behind.

There are, however, some bright spots.  South Africa remains a dynamic and large economy as well as a democratic country.  Rwanda has made extraordinary economic progress in the past decade, though it remains poor.  Ghana is an island of stability and democracy in West Africa.  The situation in the Ivory Coast, while still perilous, is hopeful as it stabilizes after a civil war and more than a decade of ethnic conflict.  There are other cases of emerging democracy, and the general rise of oil and other commodity prices has helped many African countries.

Nevertheless, Africa is the last part of the world that is experiencing runaway population growth that threatens to undermine any economic progress. Too large a portion of the population still depends on agriculture, too much of which is done with relatively poor technologies.  

There remain some egregious dictatorships that syphon off wealth for a small elite, leaving basic needs and infrastructure of the general population neglected. Some countries like Niger or the Central African Republic are so poor that it seems unlikely that they will find the means to really have any meaningful economic development.

Because so many of the countries have weak civil societies — with too few non-governmental organizations to help — and with weak governments it is often hard to get things done.  This means that foreign aid projects need to focus on promoting civil society, on helping people make appropriate technological improvements, and on promoting good governance.

Because in so much of Africa women do a disproportionate amount of the farm work, and yet remain hindered by tradition, empowering them can lead to major economic progress and social cohesion. Improving health, particularly by limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS, reducing infant mortality from diarrhea (caused largely by bad water supplies) and malaria, and generally providing more and better basic health services can also be a great economic stimulus. Helping women and controlling infant mortality is also probably the best way to get people to voluntarily limit birth rates.

So, there is much to be done, and the role of private organizations that can operate at a somewhat less visible level than direct government to government aid play a crucial role in doing that.

The organization that Ruth Messinger heads, the American Jewish World Service, is just such an organization.

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