Hope, at the moment, is rising fast on the African continent. As the historic city of Addis Ababa prepares to host world leaders in public and private lives from May 9–11 at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2012, all eyes are now set on the continent once considered as naturally locked at the base of the world’s pyramid. In what seems to be an unprecedented reversal of the world economic order, even Paul Collier, the ‘bottom billion’ analyst himself, has described Africa as “the last resource frontier”.
The sub-prime and sovereign debts crises pervading the advanced OECD countries in recent and contemporary times have shifted attention of international development economists to the converse, steady economic growth recorded over same period in the emerging markets of the BRICS. The lifeline for the sinking rich world of the ‘Global North’ is widely considered to be in the rising external reserves, abundant natural resources’ exports, and the cheap, huge labour markets found in the developing nations of the ‘Global South’, so much so that many international scholars and thinkers, such as Severino and Ray, have asked: “Can the poor save the world?”
The world is at present witnessing what The Economist (December 18, 2010) described as “The redistribution of hope”. Former poorest nations – most of whom are now the fastest growing economies in the world – have become attractive partners for growth-hungry western nations. Wendy Sherman, the US under-secretary for Political Affairs, in “Seizing opportunities from a transforming Africa”, a paper that can best be called a report of her recent tour of the African continent, writes: “Six of the ten fastest-growing countries in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa and the IMF predicts over the next five years that the number will reach seven of the top ten. I visited two of those fastest-growing countries – Angola and Nigeria – as well as three others – Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya – and it is clear that dramatic changes are happening in Africa.”
Other indices which portend greatness for the black continent, according to Sherman, are: “Africa has the highest rate of return on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) of any developing region…. By 2020, the largest sub-Saharan Africa markets – Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Lagos – will each hit $25 billion a year in household spending…. We are seeing the development of the next big economic frontier, and the US has much to gain, and much to offer, by recognizing and supporting Africa’s just and sustainable economic growth.”
It must be noted here that the USA is not alone in this remarkable re-strategizing of economic diplomacy with Africa. China and India, leading other emerging markets, are currently giving the western powers tough competition for ‘the soul of Africa’. Aid, trade, and the exchange of technical know-how, which used to flow downward unilaterally from the Global North to South, have taken a new dimension of multilateral flows across different regions. This lends credence to the World Bank’s current development models of ‘Open Development’ and ‘South-South Cooperation’.
But there are difficulties on the way, and Africa must not be lost in the euphoria of these pleasing statistics about its growth. As the World Economic Forum on Africa converges, African economic, political, and thought leaders must not allow themselves to be carried away by the prospects only, but must also tackle inclusively the challenges ahead of the region’s development.
There are perhaps several miles yet to cover in terms of good governance in Africa. High level corruption among political office holders, weak politico-economic institutions, ethno-religious violence, wide infrastructure gap, widespread poverty and youth unemployment, hunger and drought, especially in the Horn of Africa, low access to quality education, and high maternal mortality are some of the socio-economic ills bedevilling the continent. They have also for long rendered the impressive figures recorded mere econometric data representing economic growth without real development.
Africa must begin to look inwards so as to fashion out its own peculiar development strategy as it integrates further into the globalised economy. Old economic models designed by multilateral development institutions must now be adopted only in so far as they blend with traditional local circumstances, as most of these formulae have turned out in recent years to be, in the theory of Australian economist John Quiggin, ‘Zombie Economics’.
Africa, no doubt, has great lessons to learn from China which, by adopting its own home-grown policies, has been able to transit from a third world country to the fastest-growing economy in the world. Policy makers in Africa should begin to take cue from the submission of Robert Zoellick, the retiring World Bank president, in a 2010 speech thus: “In a world where there is no one, overarching, theoretical framework; in a world where scholarship must be linked to practice; in a world where developing economies have as much to share as developed, we need to democratize and demystify development economics, recognizing that we do not have a monopoly on the answers. We need to throw open the doors, recognizing that others can find and create their own solutions.”
There is indeed another ‘Scramble for Africa’ as the ‘troubled’ developed countries see the black continent as a possible exit strategy out of their present economic woes. But unlike the 1884-85 Berlin Conferences, Africans themselves are at the center and in control of the present scramble. For Africa to effectively utilise the opportunities for its development, latent in today’s unprecedented global realities, which famous economist Jeffrey Sachs has summed up as ‘a world adrift’, the region must at this year’s economic forum necessarily look beyond the impressive econometrics, graphs, and the spreadsheet of international development experts.