A calf crosses the border between Botswana and Zambia. Uneducated people - who may work in agriculture with animals like these - are the most likely to be in favour of free movement across borders in Africa. (Photo/ Flickr/ Mario Micklisch)

The Most Cosmopolitan African Is The Illiterate Villager. Seriously

REGIONAL integration is an official priority for many African governments; the promotion of economic integration and trade, free movement of people and goods across borders seen as the key to unlocking the continent’s latent potential.

Last year, leaders signed a 26-nation free trade pact to create a common market that would span half the continent from Cairo to Cape Town.

Only 12% of Africa’s trade is among countries on the continent; by comparison, intra-regional trade is 21% in South America, 50% in Asia, and 70% in Western Europe.

If progress depends in part on public support for integration, then public attitudes on regional integration are important to keep tabs on.

Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues.

Latest data from 36 African countries (pdf) reveals that a majority (56%) of Africans say people should be free to move across international borders in order to trade or work in other countries.

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But about one-third (37%) of respondents say governments should restrict cross-border movement of people and goods to protect their citizens from foreign migrants who take away jobs, and foreign traders who sell their goods at low prices.

In 15 countries, less than half of citizens support free cross-border movement. Support for free movement is strongest in West and East Africa, and weakest in North Africa.

The most intriguing breakdown of the data comes when stacked up against education level. Counter-intuitively, support for free movement of people and goods actually decreases with education, while a preference for restricted movement increases.

The most “regionally-minded” Africans are those with no formal education: 62% say there should be free movement across borders, and just 28% oppose it.

But for those with a post-secondary education, though overall the free-movement camp carries the day, the gap is much narrower. 53% support free movement and 42% oppose it.

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You might imagine that a university or college education would give you a broader, more cosmopolitan worldview; that the more educated you are, the less parochial you would become.

But the data suggests the complete opposite. It appears that education sometimes produces (and/or intensifies) feelings of xenophobia and protectionism. Why might this be the case?

It could be that the more educated you are, the more your nationalism becomes apparent to you, simply because you interact more with the state.

WHAT I DESERVE

This produces feelings of what you “deserve” on the basis of your nationality, thus you are more likely to want the government to protect your interests.

But an uneducated rural farmer, for example, may not have such expectations from the nation-state they live under.

Unemployment is also a factor here – data from several African countries shows that official unemployment increases with education level.

It’s counter-intuitive, but the reason for this is that college and university graduates tend to hold out for a job that they think their education deserves – and so they are more likely to be susceptible to the notion that foreigners are “stealing” “their” jobs.

Very few families in Africa can fully support a graduate while he or she seeks a job, a recent report from the World Bank states.

“It is no coincidence that the unemployment rate is highest among university graduates— who mostly come from the top end of the income distribution, and whose family can afford to have an able-bodied young person sitting around the house,” the report states.

TAKE WHAT YOU GET

If you have less education, you simply take whatever job you can get. With few social safety nets, the majority of Africans simply cannot afford not to work.

But what is most intriguing is that an uneducated person would be more confident about the regional marketability of his/her skills than a university graduate.

It suggests that elite conversations around education and employment are completely missing the point.

The illiterate villager has a better grasp of the real nature of regional economies, and they know that informality rules.

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