How COVID-19 could shape the future of development in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Natalie Domaas
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst

Out of all countries who have suffered from the effects of the novel coronavirus, the biggest (and most surprising) success stories come out of Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries such as Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Tanzania have all fared extremely well in the handling of the coronavirus outbreak, much better than most Western countries when early predictions were that the virus was going to decimate the continent. Many Sub-Saharan countries had increased the capacity of their health systems after the Ebola outbreak in 2014, as well as increasing the strength of the African Union Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which coupled with swift government action at the beginning of the year allowed the region’s health systems to not become overwhelmed when the virus hit.

The initial concerns of analysts were that high case numbers were going to overwhelm the health systems in many of these countries resulting in a deterioration of the development situations. With this no longer the case for a majority of countries, many Sub-Saharan countries are making strides in development that could reshape the region and its relationship with the West.

Because of the lockdowns across the globe and a lack of international coordination to address the coronavirus, many countries across Sub-Saharan Africa have become more proactive in finding domestic solutions and innovations, especially for economic and health issues. Industries such as fintech, health tech, and virtual education have begun to flourish across the region. Countries such as South Africa have seen a spike in start-up businesses amid lockdowns, especially among female entrepreneurs[1] who are using the time at home to create their own businesses. Governments in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Ghana have also used this time to push through much needed economic reforms[2] that before the crisis were stuck in parliamentary deadlocks.

As other countries, particularly in the West, have struggled to control the spread of the virus resulting in severe economic downturn the early success of many countries across the Sub-Saharan region in getting the coronavirus under control has allowed the region a rare opportunity to flourish without external interference.

With every country in the world dealing with their own waves of the pandemic, international cooperation and aid has been coming in more slowly to the continent which has allowed countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to re-evaluate their reliance[3] on external assistance. Now this is not saying that aid and assistance are no longer necessary. There will still be severe development challenges with long-term consequences that emerge from the lockdowns such as an increase in the number of

children, particularly girls, no longer in school[4], increased political instability[5] and civilian unrest due to job loss, and ever prominent government corruption.[6]

What could change though, specifically in the context of development, is that Sub-Saharan African countries could view the failures of Western democratic nations in controlling the virus as a levelling of the playing field with Western countries losing some of their credibility when it comes to negotiating development projects and reforms. With countries in the region beginning to look more inward to solve economic and development challenges through domestic innovation, this could also restructure the international hierarchy of development and how they interact with countries outside of the continent on this front.

Up until 2020 the African continent was often seen as a chess piece in the broader relationship between East and West, namely the United States and China. However, throughout the year sentiments within the continent have been shifting, where African leaders are becoming more focused on creating prosperity for their own citizens and seeking out the best avenues to do so instead of being treated as pawns.[7] Under the Trump administration, the United States has withdrawn itself from many development and investment projects in the region, which has allowed China to increase its presence and diplomatic relationships on the continent over the years.

China did this in a way that set them apart from the West in that they treated African leaders as a priority and with equality and respect, something many on the continent had felt was missing from Western leaders. This allowed them to begin vast investment projects[8] across the continent and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, at the start of the pandemic reports emerged of African immigrants in China experiencing racism and abuse[9] such as being blamed for the virus emerging in China and consequently being evicted from their housing and accommodation. This obviously did not go over well with African leaders, so in response China ramped up[10] its coronavirus engagement with the continent and became extra supportive of the African CDC.

All of these situations and varying degrees of external engagement can really expose the opportunity that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have to re-evaluate not only their reliance on other countries, but also their own abilities to creatively solve their own domestic problems.

Up until now the narrative on development has been that the only way to solve the issues that exist in the region is through external involvement either by individual countries or international organisations. What the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns has shown is that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are not only capable of solving their own development challenges but quite possibly better equipped to do so. While external funding and involvement remains necessary for certain areas of development, countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa are using this year to tap into their own resources especially when it comes to innovation which has the ability to alter the international development landscape and hierarchy once the pandemic ends.


[1] Robert Abare, “How South Africa’s women entrepreneurs are leading responses to COVID-19,” Accion, 17 August, 2020, https://www.accion.org/how-south-africas-women-entrepreneurs-are-leading-responses-to-covid-19

[2] Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Joe Palombo, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Sub-Saharan Africa” (panel event, Global Counsel and Albright Stonebridge Group, online, 7 October, 2020).

[3] Ibid.

[4] United Nations, “Policy Brief: Impact of COVID-19 in Africa,” 20 May, 2020, https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/sg_policy_brief_on_covid-19_impact_on_africa_may_2020.pdf

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thomas-Greenfield and Palombo, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Sub-Saharan Africa”

[8] Mariama Sow, “Figures of the Week: Chinese Investment in Africa,” Brookings, 6 September, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2018/09/06/figures-of-the-week-chinese-investment-in-africa/

[9] Human Rights Watch, “China: Covid-19 Discrimination Against Africans,” 5 May, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/05/china-covid-19-discrimination-against-africans

[10] Thomas-Greenfield and Palombo, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Sub-Saharan Africa”

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