Three narratives about Africa can be seen in contemporary media reports: a progress narrative, a disaster narrative, and what I call a prismatic narrative. The first narrative emphasizes the sustained growth, accompanied by poverty reduction and other social gains, that is now evident in about a quarter of the continent’s 55 countries. The disaster narrative was recently captured by Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times: “Many parts of Africa are clearly sinking deeper into violence, chaos, and obscurity.” The prismatic narrative can be seen in a report of the Africa Progress Panel chaired by Kofi Annan: “Progress, stagnation, and discouraging regression continue to co-exist on the continent.”

The progress narrative has provided an uplift from the usual dismal perceptions of Africa. It has been featured in two 2010 books: Vijay Rajahan’s Africa Rising and Steven Radelet ‘s Emerging Africa. In a similar vein, the World Bank declared in its 10-year Africa Strategy in March 2011 that sub-Saharan Africa had “an unprecedented opportunity for transformation and sustained growth” and “could be on the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago, and India 20 years ago.” The Economist added its seal of approval to that of the IMF at the end of 2011: “Over the past decade six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African. In eight of the past ten years, Africa has grown faster than East Asia, including Japan. …The IMF expects Africa to grow by 6% this year and nearly 6% in 2012, about the same as Asia.”

Not everyone is ready to break out the champagne. Daniel Kaufmann, formerly of the World Bank and now at The Brookings Institution, has expressed reservations about the “premature exuberance” being displayed. When examined closely, there are oranges mixed in with the apples. The first of the five changes responsible for progress in the 17 countries “leading the way in Africa,” according to Radelet, is “more democratic and accountable governance.” Non-democratic Ethiopia, however, constitutes almost a third of their combined population. Much less populous but no less authoritarian is another of the high performers he identifies: Rwanda. Second, per capita economic growth is outstripping advances in core infrastructure. In many African countries, road systems are dilapidated and major cities are choked by traffic. Mass transport systems, especially trains, have long collapsed in most of them—even in fast-growing Ghana. Africa risks replicating the Indian experience of growth stifled by huge deficiencies in power, water, sanitation, and other infrastructures—and with much less bureaucratic capacity to overcome the gap. Third, the resource curse, especially of crude oil, which is a disqualifier from Radelet‘s top seventeen, is a widening specter. Ghana has joined the ranks of oil producers, intensifying partisan conflict; Uganda, already plagued by corruption and authoritarian rule, is set to do so; while Mozambique and Tanzania, promising in many regards, are preparing to exploit large discoveries of natural gas. The county of Turkana in Kenya is expected to join the oil-producers with all that portends of hope and risk in African nations. With the exception of Botswana, whose governance record is dimming, no African country has combined the exploitation of great mineral wealth with equitable and sustainable development.

Not too long ago, a “north African miracle” was heralded: Tunisia. The world knows how that ended. Kenyan anti-corruption crusader John Githongo warns about the parallels south of the Sahara:

Radical and growing economic inequality animated much of what was at stake in the various Arab uprisings, and it will play a major role in shaping African politics…The disaffected [Tunisian] street vendor who set himself alight was not so different from many disaffected young men of Nairobi and Kampala’s slums. ..It is those young men who endure the daily humiliations of poverty, struggling to find jobs as elites crow about ‘growth’ and an African renaissance.

The World Bank announced on February 29 that “the proportion of people living in extreme poverty—less than $1.25 a day—fell in every developing region from 2005 to 2010.” In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty dropped below 50 percent for the first time. So what of Nigeria, the most populous African country with the potential to pull its 160 million citizens, and tens of millions in neighboring countries out of poverty? Its own National Bureau of Statistics announced just two weeks earlier that 61 percent of Nigerians—97.6 million—lived on less than $1 a day. Poverty, it continued, was 10 percent higher in 2010 than in 2004. It should be noted that Nigeria’s economic growth has matched, and sometimes exceeded, the average for sub-Saharan Africa in recent years.

A seasoned Africa observer, Michael Holman of the Financial Times, berated British Prime Minister David Cameron for convening an international meeting on the prolonged Somali crisis and piracy rather than on the continent’s glowing prospects: “Africa is on the move from basket case to a potential bread basket, from dodgy debtor to investor opportunity… A market of nearly 1 billion people, about a third of them under 21, is making up for five wasted post-independence decades.” It is undeniable that many African countries are experiencing real economic growth. And social indices are also improving. But there’s a long way to go—much of it uphill. Many of the under-21 mentioned by Holman, for example, are undereducated, unskilled, and unemployed and looking for the exits. Another decade of employment-generating growth at 7 percent and above, and in more countries, could consolidate the transformation. Ensuring that this vision is realized should be a priority for many public and private institutions.