A comparative history of occupational structure and urbanisation across Africa: design, data and preliminary overview

by Gareth Austin (University of Cambridge) and Leigh Shaw-Taylor (University of Cambridge)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.

 

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A lone giraffe in Nairobi National Park. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The general story in the research literature is that under colonial rule from the around the 1890s to around 1960, African economies became structured around exports of primary products, and that this persisted through the unsuccessful early post-colonial policies of import-substituting industrialisation, was entrenched by ‘structural adjustment’ in the 1980s, and has continued through the relatively strong economic growth across the continent since around 1995.

Our research offers a preliminary overview of the AFCHOS project, an international collaboration involving 20 scholars currently preparing 15 national or sub-national case studies. The discussion is organised in two sections.

Section I describes how by creating country data-bases as an essential first step, we aim to develop the first overview of changing occupational structures across sub-Saharan Africa, from the moment when the necessary data became available in the country concerned, to the present.

We track the shifts between agriculture, extraction, the secondary sector and services, and explore the trends in specific occupational groups within each of these sectors. We also examine the closely related process of urbanisation.

The core of the enterprise is the construction of datasets that reflect without distortion the specificities of African conditions, are commensurable across the continent, and are also commensurable with the datasets developed by parallel projects on the occupational structures of Eurasia and the Americas.

Section II outlines preliminary findings. It is centred on four graphs, depicting the evolution of the share of the economically active population in each sector, for about 14 countries. We relate these to the indications of the evolution of the size and location of population, and the size and composition of GDP.

The population of sub-Saharan Africa has increased perhaps six times since the influenza pandemic of 1918, and average living standards have not fallen: a remarkable achievement in terms of aggregate economic growth, and one that has not been sufficiently appreciated.

It is also striking that the multiplication of population, enabled by falling mortality rates, was accompanied by rapid urbanisation. There were also improvements in living standards, though modest and uneven.

Agriculture’s share in employment generally fell, especially after 1960. The share of manufacturing evolved quite differently over space and time within Africa, as we will elaborate.

Urbanisation has been accompanied by a general growth of employment in services. Where we have disaggregated the latter, so far, there has been dramatic growth in transport and distributive trades, suggesting increasing integration of national and regional economies – an important step in economic development.

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