By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK Oct 18 (Reuters) - If you are looking for some good cheer in a pretty gloomy world, consider the growing consensus among some of the world's smartest money that the next big emerging market may be Africa.
Above all, that is great news for Africans: As we have seen across so much of Asia, economic growth has accomplished what decades of well-meaning development efforts failed to do, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. If that happens in Africa, the world will be transformed.
This case for Africa as the world's new economic tiger is made forcefully in "The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa's Economic Revolution," a data-packed collection of essays to be published at the end of this month and brought together under the aegis of Renaissance Capital, an investment firm with Russian roots and global ambitions.
The consensus view among many students of the global economy is that investment decisions are about choosing, in the words of Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief executive of the fund manager Pimco, "the cleanest dirty shirt": The United States faces a fiscal cliff and political gridlock, Europe is tenuously poised between years of painfully slow growth and outright collapse, and even go-go China is slowing.
By contrast, in the view of Stephen Jennings, the Renaissance chief executive, Africa is on a tear. "It is the only region in the world where growth is accelerating," he said by phone from Moscow. "If you strip out South Africa, the rest of the region is actually growing very, very quickly."
Jennings says he believes Africa is following the path to economic development that has been trod in recent decades by countries like Brazil, China and India - only in Africa the transformation is happening even faster.
"The chances are this will be like Asia and this will go on for the next 30 years," Jennings said. "It is helpful to remember where Asia was in the early 1970s. Then, most of the wars were in Asia, the lowest GDP and life expectancy were in Asia. People thought that was Asia's lot."
We hold those same prejudices, only more deeply, when it comes to Africa, Jennings argued. But, quietly, Africa has been remaking itself.
"It is not something that we are predicting - it is something that is happening," he said. "You have this very broad-based, Asia-like process of modernization."
Jennings, who pointed out that Kenya had halved infant mortality in five years, an improvement it took India 25 years to achieve, predicts that within a generation, Africa's place in the world will be utterly changed. By 2050, he believes Nigeria will be the most populous country in the world and the African economy will be bigger than that of the United States and Europe combined.
Jennings is not alone in predicting an African renaissance. Two years ago, McKinsey, the management consulting firm, put a savanna spin on the emerging market cliche in a report titled, "Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies."
Foreshadowing "The Fastest Billion," this report painted a picture of an Africa whose economic pulse "has quickened," with gross domestic product rising 4.9 percent per year from 2000 to 2008. "While Africa's increased economic momentum is widely recognized, less known are its sources and likely staying power," the McKinsey study argued. "Our analysis suggests that Africa's long-term economic prospects are quite strong. Global businesses cannot afford to ignore the potential."
An obvious source of Africa's new might is the surge in commodity prices, and both reports acknowledge the impact of natural resources. But they also have a shared conviction that domestic factors are at play. The predictable one is improved governance.
Less predictable is the joint celebration of Africa's excellent demographics. Not so long ago, Africa's tragedy was its children - now that is why the global elite think Africa may be a strong bet. This is just the beginning of a revolution in our thinking about babies and the economy: The Industrial Revolution transformed children from a family's labor force to its luxury good. That is still the case; but for the national economy, babies are becoming the most precious resource of all.
Both McKinsey and Renaissance have produced hopeful documents, and for a continent that mostly gets hand-wringingly gloomy news coverage, that is a very welcome perspective. But it is worth challenging one optimistic assumption, particularly because of its wider implications.
That is the view that in Africa, economic growth and democracy will go together. Their synonymity is a comfortable belief. But in Africa, as in other emerging markets like China, Russia and even Turkey, it may not be true.
For example, Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that in countries that are cracking down on freedom of the press, like Ethiopia, economic growth deflects attention from growing authoritarianism rather than undermining it.
This is the Putin model, or the Beijing model - forget about ephemeral concepts like free speech and pluralism in exchange for a swiftly increasing GDP. It is not just impoverished domestic electorates that are tempted by this siren song. Western investors and many Western governments find it equally convincing. But the emerging market lions - and the tigers and the Siberian bears - should ask themselves how long authoritarian growth can be sustained.