5 things to watch at the World Economic Forum on Africa

Photo by: Manuel Lopez / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

DURBAN, South Africa — South Africa was once seen as a beacon of African growth and an example for the rest of the continent to follow. But while the country is still the only African member of the G-20, it faces a series of recent challenges — from a downgrading of its credit rating to junk status to allegations of corruption at the highest level — as it is set to host the 27th World Economic Forum on Africa.

About 1,000 business, civil society and government leaders from more than 100 countries have now descended upon the port city of Durban on the country’s Indian Ocean coast for the three-day summit. The group includes 10 heads of state, including South Africa’s own embattled President Jacob Zuma.

The theme for this year’s gathering is “achieving inclusive growth,” a challenge for a continent with both a growing middle class and consumer culture and some of the poorest populations on the planet.

Here are some of the issues Devex will be watching this week:

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Business and government leaders gather for the forum at a time when millions of Africans are facing starvation — specifically in South Sudan, Somalia and Northern Nigeria. While drought has brought Somalia once again to the brink of famine, conflict has fueled the dire situations in Northern Nigeria and in South Sudan, where a famine has already been declared.

While there will be some discussion about the famine, little of the formal program focuses on the issue. One session, however, will be looking at solutions for how farmers can accelerate food production to meet growing demand both locally and abroad. Devex will also be asking some of these questions, including in conversations with the Rockefeller Foundation and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the technical body of the African Union.

While agricultural resilience is important, the root cause of much of the suffering related to hunger is conflict. In South Sudan warring factions have often targeted aid workers, prevented access to people in need, and stolen goods intended for the hungry. In Northern Nigeria Boko Haram has displaced many of the farmers who used to feed others but now find themselves in need of support. So Devex will also be looking at issues of governance and fragility.

Governance and conflict

While the continent has incredible potential for growth, much of that growth will be limited if there is a lack of good governance. Countries with weak institutions that are entangled in conflicts or teetering on the brink must be shored up in order to create the type of inclusive growth that is the central focus of the forum.

Devex will be looking to explore the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative and how business, government and society together can try to drive responsible leadership and thereby attract more business to the continent. Part of the conversation at the summit will look at how digitization can be used as a tool for civic participation to help enhance government accountability.

Devex will also be at a conversation about efforts underway to address conflict and fragility with Donald Kaberuka — the former president of the African Development Bank and a special envoy at the African Union Peace Fund — Forest Whitaker, a UNESCO special envoy for peace and the founder and CEO of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative, and others. Devex will also be speaking with Vasu Gounden, the founder and executive director of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes to get his insights.

Good governance is set to be a pervasive issue, particularly as the host nation’s president potentially faces 783 charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering. What progress might be made on these issues remains to be seen.

Employment, skills-building and future of work

Providing formal jobs for roughly 1.2 billion people who live on the continent lies at the core of Africa’s future development. While studies show the percentage of unemployed youth has slowly decreased in sub-Saharan Africa since 2012, more than one-quarter of north African youth, those between the ages of 15 and 29, were without work in 2016, according to research by the International Labour Organization.

The unemployment outlook remains largely mixed across countries. In South Africa, for example, half of youth are unemployed, the highest on the continent. Not only does unemployment remain problematic, but the poor quality of employment leaves too many living in “working poverty.” Roughly 65 million of Africa’s youth live in moderate to extreme poverty and earn less than $5 per day.

Low enrollment rates in secondary and tertiary education translates to a large number of unskilled workers who often resort to informal employment opportunities or low-skilled jobs. With a rising youth population, experts including the AfDB vice president of agriculture, human and social development will attempt to answer the question: How can government and business leaders introduce new technologies to expand access to education, counter this working poverty trend, enact policy change and foster skills for future jobs?

An increased push for regional integration, industrialization and trade

Trade and investment in Africa remain potential drivers for development and growth on the continent. Industrialization has become a buzzword in Africa, as countries scramble to find solutions that incorporate current technologies to meet the needs of its people. Although technology has the potential to generate breakthroughs in agriculture and health care by improving efficiency and expanding the reach of businesses and organizations, it often accentuates constraints mostly due to limitations around capacity and connectivity.

A country’s ability to industrialize also relies on its means to convert natural resources into finished goods, a weakness for Africa where an estimated $35 billion is spent on food imports, according to AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina. Following the 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting — with the theme was “mastering the fourth industrial revolution” — this year’s Africa meeting seeks to refocus attention on the urgency of economic diversification, revitalization of manufacturing and harnessing human innovation to achieve sustainable growth. A session titled “Green, Growth or Both” will take a look at the possibility of large-scale infrastructure projects to accelerate industrial development while adhering to international environmental regulations.  

Health systems and pandemic preparedness

Ebola, malaria, cholera, meningitis, and HIV/AIDS are among a list of epidemic and pandemic-prone diseases that threaten African public health security. Africa’s health care challenges are unique to the region, with a need for continent-specific medical solutions. Though recent advancements in the creation of a malaria and Ebola vaccination have been made, African health care systems still lack local capacity for expansive health research, products and services. Africa remains the poorest continent with the highest disease burden. To help build the capacity of health systems, this regional conference has prioritized topics ranging from improved access to health care, to redesigning health policies, to new strategies to combat disease in the wake of rapid urbanization.  

Alongside these discussions, Devex will also be talking with the director of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention — a public health institute created by the African Union Commission and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to learn more about the organization’s five year strategic plan to improve surveillance, emergency response and prevention of infectious diseases.                         

For everything you need to know about the World Economic Forum on Africa, follow our coverage this week and join the conversation on Africa's future. Follow @devex and tag #WEFAfrica2017.

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About the authors

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.
  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.