June 4th, 2014
04:47 PM ET

Writing Africa off is a mistake

By Amina Mohammed and Hadeel Ibrahim, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Amina Mohammed is a special adviser to the U.N. Secretary General on Post-2015 Development Planning. Hadeel Ibrahim is the founding executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which supports leadership and governance issues in Africa. They are working to convene a discussion on this theme on the margins of the 69th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in. The views expressed are their own.

May 25 marked Africa Day, an opportunity to celebrate the continent’s potential and its new-found economic dynamism. And yet, despite a record of growth rates consistently outperforming that of other emerging economies, huge natural resources endowments, an expanding middle class and an energetic, youthful workforce, Africa is consistently written off. Why?

The unconscionable kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls was just one of a string of recent attacks by extremists in Nigeria. But while our hearts go out to the girls and their families, and those killed by recent bombings, these tragic stories must not be allowed to completely overshadow the progress and potential that Africa has demonstrated in recent years. For while violence typically seizes headlines, the continent’s rapidly growing population and consumer base is providing an alternative, oft-overlooked narrative – one of an attractive market for regional and global companies.

In the last decade alone, growth has been broad-based, not just in commodities, but also in telecommunications, banking, construction, retail and real estate. Such opportunities have not gone unnoticed in the developed world, and an increasing number of investment funds are looking to Africa for high returns.

This is occurring against a backdrop of declining risk and an improved business environment thanks to better legislation, enforcement of such legislation, and stronger institutions. Such improvements have paved the way for some eye-catching investment numbers: according to the African Development Bank, in 2012 China alone had some $27 billion invested in the continent. And just last month, at the World Economic Forum in Nigeria, the Chinese government announced it would invest $42 billion in Africa, $30 billion of which will go to the extension of credit lines, $10 billion to finance investment and $2 billion for the China-Africa investment fund. The United States is also planning to increase business opportunities for American companies in Africa.

But as the yardstick of the Millennium Development Goals underscores, the gains have not just been in business. True, the top goal of reducing hunger and extreme poverty is very much a work in progress, but significant strides have been made in other areas. According to the United Nations, primary school enrollment increased markedly in sub-Saharan Africa, from 58 percent to 76 percent between 1999 and 2010. Access to treatment for people living with HIV, meanwhile, has expanded right across Africa – from a 20 percent increase in sub-Saharan Africa to what is termed universal access (defined as coverage of at least 80 percent of the population in need) in Botswana, Namibia and Rwanda.

Yet while doing business in Africa seems a safer investment than ever before, we must not be naïve. For a start, while the promising growth and investment seen among some countries is certainly real, it is sometimes unclear if average Africans are benefiting – even as billions pour in, there are educational and environmental issues aplenty, not to mention a massive shortfall in basic infrastructure.

With this in mind, African leaders would do well to consider expanding the role of public-private partnerships, which can leverage public financing and strengthen collaboration with emerging donors. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), for example, has enjoyed a decade of successes thanks to its unique public-private partnership model, which has built a lean organization that relies on local partners in beneficiary countries. As a result, in 10 years, GAVI has saved more than 4 million lives and has immunized an additional 256 million children in the world's poorest countries. More recently, the U.N. secretary general has launched several initiatives based on strong partnerships between private and public actors, including Every Women Every Child and Sustainable Energy for All.

But such partnerships cannot succeed without the foundations of effective, accountable governance, something that Africans themselves are calling for. Just look at the voting on the U.N. MY World’s global survey, which gives citizens the chance to contribute to the new 2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. Of the nearly half a million Africans who have voted, an honest and responsive government was rated as one of the top four priorities for a better life.

Clearly, the communications revolution is allowing citizens to be more engaged in how their countries’ are run, and is allowing them to play a fuller role in society by providing better access to information and helping them organize. This has energized participation and fostered greater accountability. But more needs to be done, a reality noted by the U.N. Secretary General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which called for a “data revolution” to monitor progress and strengthen accountability. Data, hard numbers and evidence are poised to take over from ideology.

What does all this mean for the new development agenda, which is to be set next year to succeed the MDG’s?

As noted in the work of the African Union High-Level Committee on Post-2015, finding a balance between people and planet is not just a priority, it is essential. Africa must therefore tackle much needed structural reorganization – including establishing fair prices for domestic resources, proper taxation both domestically and for foreign companies – while stemming illicit financial flows through secret tax havens and other channels. Indeed, an upcoming report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s High Level Panel on illicit Financing Flows led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to indicate that illicit flows from Africa each year could be as much as twice as large as the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) allocated to Africa for the same period.

The solutions are many and complex, but must include greater transparency in the international corporate tax system. The United States and EU have already passed legislation requiring all companies in the oil, gas and mining sector to disclose their payments to governments on a country-by-country and project-by-project basis, but this must be expanded to cover all sectors. There must be fair and open exchanges of information between developed and developing countries, requiring commitment on both sides.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that Africa is not a single entity with one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, it is a vast continent of small economies and landlocked countries. Given its geography, problems must be tackled by region, so countries can work together to reap the benefits of economies of scale. The continent’s infrastructure, which is sorely in need of significant investment and upgrade, is a good example of where these economies of scale could prove useful. Such cooperation would also help develop intra-African trade and enhance the region’s competitiveness in the global economy.

But all of this will only be possible if developed nations keep an open mind, and appreciate that while extremism and unrest such as that seen in northern Nigeria or elsewhere in the continent is a reason for caution, it is not a reason to overlook the progress that has been made. The West, especially, needs to change the way it looks and acts towards Africa, and be willing to embrace its opportunities, even as it remains realistic about the challenges. If it can do so, it will help foster the kind of sustainable growth and progress that will be good for everyone.

Topics: Africa

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Africa has massive natural resources, yet many countries there are mired in hunger and a gross lack of education.
    The authors of this article request investment and donor aid from other parts of the world.
    When Europeans came to America, they endured extreme hardship to trawl to areas with great natural resources. The new Americans developed the land and its cornucopia of resources without outside investment and CARE packages.
    The starving residents of undeveloped African nations would do well to examine this American model and then replicate it.
    Surely the authors of the article do not perceive a genetic lack in the hungry people of Africa. I certainly do not.

    June 5, 2014 at 6:56 am |
  2. Tedla Asfaw

    China brought more than 200 million of its people out of poverty in the last two decades. China attracted Western companies to its shore and now is a manufacturing giant. China "copied" Western technology and sell it cheap. China is now sending its wealth and people in millions to settle in Africa. That danger is well articulated by a new book. Follow this clip.

    China is doing what it did not allow the Western companies do to its people to the African Continent. The big danger for Africa is not Al Qaeda it is the Chinese Invasion !!! China's looting of Africa must be stopped !!!!

    June 5, 2014 at 9:32 am |
  3. Peter mabas

    Neo-colonialism by western nations in disguise, by hijacking african governments and decieving gullible african politicians and aiding corruption must stop for real economic growth and development to take place.

    June 5, 2014 at 11:57 am |
  4. globalpublicsquare.blogs

    I like fish

    June 6, 2014 at 11:56 pm |
  5. joe

    And I like pepperoni pizza

    June 8, 2014 at 9:57 am |

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