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Frustrations and expectations in sub-Saharan Africa

When asked about the most pressing problems in their countries, people in sub-Saharan Africa often recite a familiar list of challenges: poverty, health care, education, corruption, and other difficult issues.

At the Pew Research Center, we have conducted multiple surveys in Africa that underscore just how daunting some of these problems seem to average people. The same surveys, however, have also revealed a widespread desire to tackle major problems, along with significant hope for the future. Public opinion in Africa, these studies show, sits at the crossroads between frustration and optimism.

First, let’s look at the frustrations. Economic challenges remain a top concern for many Africans. In a 2016 poll of Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, more than eight-in-ten in all three nations said the lack of employment opportunities is a very big problem, and similar percentages said the same about poverty. And when asked why many people in their countries do not have jobs, the top reason given was that many jobs only go to people with connections.

The idea of a system stacked against ordinary people is found, again, in the political arena. Majorities in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa say government is run for the benefit of a few groups rather than all people. Huge majorities also say government corruption is a very big problem.

Despite these complaints, most Africans we’ve surveyed are not despondent. Instead, our research has found substantial optimism about the future. For instance, we asked Kenyans, Nigerians, and South Africans what advice they would give to a young person in their country who wants to live a good life: stay in their country or move abroad? Roughly three-in-four in all three nations would tell the ambitious young person to stay home.

Across nine African nations polled in 2015, a median of 56% thought that when children in their country grow up they will be financially better off than their parents; just 33% believed the next generation will be worse off. In contrast, the same survey found considerable pessimism in wealthier nations. Only 32% of Americans, for example, thought children in the United States will be better off than their parents, and across the six European Union nations surveyed a median of just 28% were optimistic for the next generation.

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Our survey respondents in Africa were not baseless in their optimism. Whether in Africa or elsewhere, we discovered that optimism about the long-term future tracked closely with relatively high levels of economic growth between 2005 and 2014. Pessimism, in turn, was more common in wealthier nations that had struggled since the onset of the global financial crisis.

Africans are also confident about facing down specific challenges in their countries. For example, large majorities of Kenyans, Nigerians and South Africans think education and health care will be better when today’s children grow up. Expectations for combating corruption are more modest. Only around a third of Kenyans and South Africans think the problem of corruption will improve for the next generation (Nigerians are more hopeful – 60% hold this view).

Economic progress in key African nations has generated significant optimism about the future.

The brightness of that future depends, in large part, on ordinary people being convinced that corruption, favouritism, and special interests have not prevented people like themselves from sharing in the wealth and opportunities generated by economic growth.