Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino marks International Women’s Day with an inspiring personal story about her recent trip to Ghana and Sierra Leone where she saw firsthand what women in these countries are doing to improve their lives:  

In America, we often complain about how hard we work. Compared with women in Africa, we’ve got no idea what hard work is. They work from before dawn until well after dark. Slowly, however, new programs are providing new ways to earn a living.

In Ghana, we met women who are small-holder farmers in a rice cooperative. These women combined resources to create a co-op, so they can earn an income by selling their produce in local markets. They sell to buyers collectively, which allows them to get a fair price and avoid being undersold. The income earned provides their families with food and health care and sends their children to school – laying the groundwork for a better life.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Ghana. It’s a story unfolding across the African continent. Empowering one woman is an investment in the future of families and countries.

As Perino points out, conditions in Africa are improving.  Reuters reported last week that according to a new report “Africans are getting wealthier more quickly than previously believed and that these riches are spreading beyond the narrow confines of Africa’s elite.”  

The report, by U.S. economists Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Maxim Pinkovskiy from the National Bureau of Economic Research (read full report here, subscription required), shows an assessment of poverty levels and income distribution in Africa from 1970 to 2006 and shows that Africa’s economic situation is finally improving-contradicting the bleak assessments given by the United Nations.  As Reuters reports:  

The study also challenges the suggestion that strong African growth over the last decade or more has done little to alleviate grassroots poverty due to the countervailing effect of equally strong population expansion.  Going by an inflation-adjusted $1 per person per day yardstick, the study, using statistical analysis pioneered by the two authors said 32 percent of Africans were in poverty in 2006, compared to 42 percent in 1995 and 40 percent in 1970.  By contrast, the United Nations’ population agency estimates the average African is 22 percent worse off now than in the mid-1970s because “20 years of an almost 3 per cent annual population growth has outpaced economic gains”. 

Similarly, in 2008 the U.N. Development Programme said sub-Saharan Africa had made “little progress” in reducing extreme poverty as part of a Millennium Development Goal bid to halve it between 2000 and 2015.

The new study, published by the private, non-profit U.S.-based National Bureau of Economic Research, analysed the shift in distribution curves of African incomes, derived from standard data sources over more than three decades.

Africa’s failings appear particularly stark when compared with the tens of millions who have benefitted from the economic boom in Asia, most notably China and India.

However, the study suggests Africa is on track to achieve its goal only two years late — and if the impact of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the last decade is stripped out, it would get there two years early.

“The main point is that Africa has been moving in the right direction and, while progress has not been as substantial and spectacular as in Asia, poverty has been falling and it has been falling substantially,” the authors wrote.