On paper the country is one of the richest in Africa, richer for instance than Saudi Arabia or Poland.
Yet that wealth does not seem to have filtered down into improved standards of living for the people. Equatorial Guinea has a life expectancy of 51, no higher than Rwanda, lower than Niger and Ethiopia. It's infant mortality rate is 88 per 1,000 live births, worse than Liberia or Sudan, nearly fifteen times worse than Poland.
Equatorial Guinea's growth is atypical too. Here is a Gapminder graph showing the growth of GDP per capita (PPP inflation adjusted US$) from 1990 to 2009, comparing Ireland, USA, Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic:
Equatorial Guinea, on the other hand, simply exploded. In 1990 GDP per capita was $1,028. By 2009 it was $15,342, an increase of 1,392%! In one single year GDP per capita rose 29%. To compare Equatorial Guinea with other African countries with similar levels of wealth back in 1996...
...Is almost comical. So citizens seem to enjoy incredible improvements in wealth with very slow improvements in health. What is the key to this puzzle? Oil. From the CIA World Factbook:
The Factbook give further signs of Equatorial Guinea's weird economy. A 2009 estimate for unemployment is 23.3%, yet public debt is incredibly low at 4.1% of GDP.
The discovery and exploitation of large oil and gas reserves have contributed to dramatic economic growth but fluctuating oil prices have produced huge swings in GDP growth in recent years.... The government has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and misuse of oil revenues...
An OECD study confirms the impression of mixed blessings from the oil boom:
The sustained economic growth and the increase in oil revenue, however, have had very little effect on poverty reduction in the country and on improving the general standard of living of the population. The poverty rate in Equatorial Guinea remains extremely high....
The contribution of hydrocarbons to GDP in 2006 was 87 per cent. The oil industry has without doubt become the engine of Equatorial Guinea’s economy, a long way ahead of other industries, including agriculture and wood.
The study adds that vaccination programmes are slow but proceeding, while health infrastructure is slowly improving. Let's hope Equatorial Guinea can turn its oil boom into the kind of wider economic development that directs its other figures in the right direction too. With GDP per capita higher than Chile, at the moment Equatorial Guinea's life expectancy lags behind Chile by nearly three decades.