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Africa's Rising Hopes

Despite the problems their nations face, a poll finds that Africans are optimistic about the future.

By Lydia Polgreen & Marjorie Connelly

In a village near Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a 21-year-old shopkeeper named Salimata Mbengue has high hopes for the future, but she worries about the economic situation of her family.

"I have five brothers, and only two are employed," she says, sitting outside the small store where she sells sodas, candy, biscuits, and milk. "Our parents are retired, and we have to support them. I am hopeful, but it is very hard to get ahead here."

Mbengue's cautious optimism reflects that of many Africans today. Despite Africa's troubles—from deadly illnesses like AIDS and malaria to corrupt politicians and deep-seated poverty—many Africans say they are better off today than they were five years ago. They are also optimistic about their future and that of the next generation, according to a poll conducted in 10 sub-Saharan countries by The New York Times and the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

The poll results offer a snapshot of 10 African states—Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. For the most part, Africans say they are satisfied with their national governments, and a majority in 7 of the 10 countries surveyed say their economic situation is at least somewhat good. But many say their countries face a wide array of difficult problems: drug trafficking, political corruption, a lack of clean water, inadequate schools, ethnic and political violence, and disease.

Patchwork Progress

Results show that the struggle for democracy and good government in Africa is more like a patchwork of gains and setbacks than a steady tide of progress across the continent.

In Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, the poll results reflect frustration with the way elections are carried out; 67 percent of Nigerians say that their presidential election in April was not conducted fairly. Yet Nigerians are the most optimistic of all the Africans surveyed㭁 percent think that children growing up in Nigeria today will be better off than people are now.

"It expresses a huge challenge for democracy in Africa,'' says Peter M. Lewis, director of African Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "We have seen significant strides for democratic liberty and practices in the last 10 or 15 years. It is also a fact that in most of their countries, average citizens have not seen a significant improvement in their material circumstances and their living condition.''

Health Concerns

The spread of infectious diseases like AIDS is seen as a very big problem by a large majority in every country polled. More than half of the 40 million people worldwide infected with H.I.V. (the virus that causes AIDS) live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations; Africa accounted for 65 percent of new infections in 2006.

Lack of clean drinking water is seen as a big problem for a majority in all 10 countries. About half of those polled in eight countries say they have been unable to pay for medical care.

A majority of respondents in all but Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania say that they had enough money to feed their families. But large majorities say poor-quality schools are a major problem, and many respondents say it is harder to provide an education for their children than feed them.

Poll results give a mixed picture of the economy. Many respondents say that their financial situation has improved in the last five years, except for Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Uganda. Many African economies are growing rapidly as prices for oil, iron ore, copper, and timber have risen; overall gross domestic product growth in Africa last year was 5.7 percent.

Some countries, like Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, have seen much higher growth. But this has not necessarily led to broad prosperity. Of the respondents in Nigeria, where much of the oil revenue is lost to corruption and inefficiency, 82 percent say average people are not benefiting from the country's oil wealth.

Face-to-face interviews were conducted in April and May with 8,471 adults in 10 countries. The survey sampled nationwide adult populations, except in South Africa, where the sample was completely urban, and Ivory Coast, where it was disproportionately urban and tended to be in areas sympathetic to the government. Numbers do not always add up to 100 percent because "no opinion" responses are not shown.