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Africa: a new economic frontier

india Updated: May 27, 2010 09:49 IST
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This is an important year for Africa. The World Cup is putting the continent at the centre of global attention. Its strengths and frailties will be under greater international scrutiny than ever before. What will the story be?

Our economies are proving their resilience. After major difficulties in the wake of the global economic and financial crisis, economic recovery is underway, contrasting with gloominess elsewhere in the world. The African Development Bank and IMF foresee GDP growth rates of around 5% by the end of the year.

Trade is growing too, both within Africa and with partners, including the global South. Africa–China trade has multiplied more than tenfold in the last decade. Barely a week goes by without reports of the discovery of more oil, gas, precious minerals or other resources somewhere on the continent.

The value of Africa’s resources is increasing and business activity is increasing. Climate change is drawing attention to the vast potential of its renewable energy supplies, including hydro, thermal, wind and solar power.

In short, Africa’s stock is rising, as the Africa Progress Report 2010 being launched on Africa Day highlights. But the report also asks some difficult questions.

Given our continent’s wealth, why are so many people still trapped in poverty?

Why is progress on achievement of the Millennium Development Goals so slow and uneven? Why are so many women marginalised and disenfranchised? Why is inequality increasing? And why so much insecurity?

The good news is that access to basic services such as energy, clean water, healthcare and education has improved in many parts of the continent. But it is still denied to hundreds of millions of women, men and children.

In trying to provide the answers to these difficult questions, one must be wary of generalisations. Africa is not homogenous; it is raucously diverse. But its nations are linked by common challenges hampering human development and equitable growth – weak governance, and insufficient investment in public goods and services, whether citizens’ productive capacity, infrastructure, affordable energy, health, education and agricultural productivity.

Climate change is adding new dimensions and urgency. There is growing recognition that sustainable economic development and jobs need to be anchored in low-carbon economies, buttressed by disaster-risk and vulnerability reduction plans.

Over the last decade, we have learnt a great deal about what is needed. Ingredients include determined political leadership to set and drive plans for equitable growth and poverty reduction. Technical, management and institutional capacity are vital if policies and plans are to be implemented. Good governance, the rule of law and systems of accountability are essential to ensure that resources are subject to public scrutiny and used effectively and efficiently.

So what is holding back progress? Lack of knowledge and shortage of plans are not the problem. Good, even visionary agendas have been formulated by African leaders and policy makers in every field, from regional integration to women’s empowerment. Moreover, we have myriad examples of programmes and projects that are making a tangible positive difference to peoples’ lives in every field.

Nor, given the continent’s vast natural and human resources and the ongoing, often illicit, outflow of wealth, is lack of funds the insuperable barrier, though more are needed.

It is political will which is the issue, both internationally and in Africa.

Internationally, there are concerns that the consensus around development has been eroded by the financial crisis. Many rich countries are keeping their promises on development assistance. But others are falling badly behind.

These shortfalls do not result from any decrease in human solidarity and sympathy. Nor, given the relatively modest sums involved, can they be blamed on budgetary constraints alone.

They stem more from the failure to communicate the importance of putting the needs of the least developed and African countries at the heart of global policies.

Efforts must be stepped up to explain how these benefits, whether in providing fairer trade policies or stemming corruption, are not just ethical or altruistic but practical and in the self-interest of richer countries.

Africa’s leaders have prime responsibility for driving equitable growth and for making the investment needed to achieve the MDGs. They can help by making the case more strongly for development policies and the resources needed.

The continent now has leaders who stand out as champions of development. We need more of them. But sadly their efforts are overshadowed in the international media by the authoritarian and self-enriching behaviour of other leaders. Africa’s progress should be measured not just in GDP but by the benefits that economic growth brings to all its people.

Africa is a new economic frontier. The approach and actions of the private sector, and of Africa’s traditional and new international partners, are crucial in helping overcome the continent’s challenges. There is a real opportunity to strengthen the new partnerships with countries such as China, the Far and Middle East, South Asia and Latin America to help achieve development goals.

African leaders need to have more confidence in their bargaining position, and greater legal and negotiating capacities to ensure that they secure deals that bring benefits. Their partners, including private sector and from the global South, should be held to high standards of transparency and integrity.

Political leadership, practical capacities and strong accountability are the winning elements of a great story. The international community can play a decisive role in ensuring that Africa is playing on a level field. But Africa’s destiny is, first and foremost, in its own hands.

Kofi Annan, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Nobel Laureate

The Africa Progress Report can be read online at www.africaprogresspanel.org

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