Africa: The not-so-happy continent

Mourners at the funeral of anti-Gaddafi fighter Fawzi al-Maghbor from 2011. Libya scores highest in Africa in 2015's World Happiness Report. (Suhaib Salem, Reuters)

Mourners at the funeral of anti-Gaddafi fighter Fawzi al-Maghbor from 2011. Libya scores highest in Africa in 2015's World Happiness Report. (Suhaib Salem, Reuters)

Africa is the world’s least happy continent, according to a report produced by experts to describe how scientific “measurements of well-being can be used effectively to assess the progress of nations.

Even South Africa, which you’d think would be one of the more upbeat countries given that it’s celebrating 21 years of democracy, is ranked 113 out of the total 158 nations included in the 2015 World Happiness Report. It’s clustered with Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Ghana and Zimbabwe with a score of around 4.6 out of a possible 10.

South Africa doesn’t even make the top 10 happy countries in Africa. It lies 12th. Our neighbours Lesotho and Swaziland are apparently happier than us, according to the measures used by the report’s authors to establish average national happiness.

It turns out that Libya scores highest (5.754 out of 10) in Africa on the “ranking of happiness 2012 -2014”, a surprise given the state of the country since its long-time leader Moammar Gadaffi was ousted and killed in 2011. Algeria, Libya’s neighbour and also on the Mediterranean coast, ranks second (5.605 out of 10).

Sub-Saharan Africa joins the ranks with Mauritius, Nigeria and Zambia in third, fourth and fifth place on the continent, but 71, 78 and 85 in the world.

Eight of the 10 countries with the lowest scores are in sub-Saharan Africa: Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Benin, Burundi and Togo. Two war-torn countries - Syria and Afghanistan - make up the ten.

What is the happiness report measuring?

“Happiness is increasingly considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy,” the report states.

An increasing number of national and local governments use “happiness data”  and research - essentially a measure of subjective well-being - as a way to guide policies that could enable people to live better lives, according to the report.

The world rankings in the report use data from the Gallup World Poll as part of which respondents are asked to rate their current lives on a scale of zero to 10, with the “best possible life for them” being 10 and the “worst possible” being a 0. The rankings are from nationally representative samples for the years 2012-2014.

People’s life evaluations are influenced by six factors. They are: 

  • 1.    GDP per capita; 
  • 2.    Healthy years of life expectancy; 
  • 3.    Social support - measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble; 
  • 4.    Trust - measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business; 
  • 5.    Freedom to make life decisions (perceived freedom); 
  • 6.    Generosity - measured by recent donations, adjusted for different incomes. 

The first three factors are the most important, the report says.

It estimates the contribution of each of these factors in the valuations people give each country. “People often ask why some countries rank higher than others,” the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which publishes the report, said on its website. By estimating the contribution of each of the six factors in the valuations of happiness people give for each country, the authors attempt to provide an answer to that question.

Why are African scores so low?

Income differences are an important explanation for the difference in the scores people gave to evaluate the quality of their lives. They are as much as one-third of the total explanation. It is also the factor that is most unequally distributed among the countries included in the report.

Libya’s high ranking could be explained by the fact that its gross domestic product per capita is the second-highest in Africa, at nearly $12 000, according to the World Bank’s Development Indicators for 2013. It’s down from 2012 by just over $1 000. Only the Seychelles’s GDP per capita is higher, at $16 000 in 2013; but that country isn’t included in the Happiness Report’s rankings.

Mauritius is right up there too, at $9 500 -  the fourth highest in Africa.

But clearly income doesn’t explain everything because Gabon, which has Africa’s third-highest GDP per capita, ranks 33rd out of the 45 African countries listed in the report. Malawi, with a GDP of $226 per person, the lowest on the World Bank’s list for 2013, is happier.

“People are more satisfied with their lives in countries with better governance,” the Happiness Report states. “Actual changes in governance quality since 2005 have led to significant changes in the quality of life,” it adds.

The top-scorers 

European countries, top the list, led by Switzerland, then Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Canada. New Zealand and Australia also make it into the top 10. Top 20 countries:

  • 1 Switzerland 
  • 2 Iceland 
  • 3 Denmark 
  • 4 Norway 
  • 5 Canada 
  • 6 Finland 
  • 7 Netherlands 
  • 8 Sweden 
  • 9 New Zealand 
  • 10 Australia 
  • 11 Israel 
  • 12 Costa Rica 
  • 13 Austria 14 
  • Mexico 
  • 15 United States 
  • 16 Brazil 
  • 17 Luxembourg 
  • 18 Ireland 
  • 19 Belgium
  • 20 United Arab Emirates

Bottom 20 countries

  • 139 Republic of Congo 
  • 140 Comoros 
  • 141 Uganda 
  • 142 Senegal 
  • 143 Gabon 
  • 144 Niger 
  • 145 Cambodia 
  • 146 Tanzania 
  • 147 Madagascar 
  • 148 Central African Republic 
  • 149 Chad 
  • 150 Guinea 
  • 151 Cote d’Ivoire 
  • 152 Burkina Faso 
  • 153 Afghanistan 
  • 154 Rwanda 
  • 155 Benin 
  • 156 Syria 
  • 157 Burundi 
  • 158 Togo

There is a four-point gap between the 10 top and 10 bottom countries. Three-quarters of this gap is accounted for by differences in the six factors, with GDP per capita, social support and healthy life expectancy the largest contributors,” the report states.

Research into well-being, aka “happiness”, plays an important role in the sustainable development goals, which are likely to replace the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals this year. “The concepts of happiness and well-being are very likely to help guide progress towards sustainable development,” according to the report.



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