Should Africa 'hurry up and wait' amid development crisis?

A map of Africa on a globe. PIRO4D

DURBAN, South Africa — In my former career as a political pollster and election monitor, I got to see up close two ultimately failed revolutions: The effort to recall Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The lesson I took is that real change is iterative, not immediate.

Like revolutions that hold the promise of rapid, irrevocable change, the predominant “Africa Rising” or “Africa Failing” narratives are too good to be true (or too bad to be true). They're easy to understand and suggest no further thinking or work is required.

5 things to watch at the World Economic Forum on Africa

About 1,000 business, civil society and government leaders from more than 100 countries have descended upon Durban, South Africa, for the 27th World Economic Forum on Africa. Here are some of the topics Devex will be watching this week.

But the truth is more complex and does require us to roll-up our sleeves. In 2015, some 19 percent of the world’s youth population, or 226 million people ages 15 to 24, lived in Africa. By 2030, that number will have risen by 42 percent and it is set to keep on growing. By 2055, it will have more than doubled. Those statistics alone make the future of Africa an urgent global concern in every dimension — moral and humanitarian, as well as economic and geopolitical.

And while there are data points that yield hope and others despair, the real question is: What are we, as a global community, doing about it?

That's what more than 1,000 leaders are coming together to discuss in Durban this week for the World Economic Forum's Africa summit. The issues are as complex and diverse as the many nations, peoples, and languages of the continent. So let's resist the urge to simplify and instead consider some of the big themes that Devex will be on hand to cover.

One major topic is the rise in automation and what it might mean for Africa. Again, data points abound, both good and bad. On the plus side, delivery drones could make African supply chains globally competitive, even in countries that lack the highway and train systems normally required to move goods at scale. But the classic story of national development normally includes a period when poorer countries utilize their relatively cheap labor force to become export leaders in low-skilled manufacturing such as textiles and parts. That road to development might be blocked because of the rise of 3D printing and robotics, stalling African development at a time when it represents just 1 percent of global manufacturing exports.

Another big theme for the delegates gathered in Durban is how to finance the Sustainable Development Goals for African nations. As major donors face nationalist backlashes at home, more focus is being placed on mobilizing private sector investment in infrastructure, health systems and education. The money is certainly available — languishing in pension funds and insurance companies in a low interest rate environment — but can more African countries create the kinds of investment environments that will attract this risk-averse capital? The world's development finance institutions, in particular the World Bank, are focused on this "billions to trillions" agenda, but many countries in the region are a long way from being able to attract significant amounts of private capital for their development.

5 lessons for Africa's emergence

The 2017 International Conference on the Emergence of Africa in Abidjan gathered more than 400 high-level representatives from government, NGOs, the private sector and research community to discuss and debate best practices for transforming the continent's economies, governments and societies.

Of course, domestic resource mobilization is an important topic too — for example, the African Union receives only 1 percent of its budget from African member states — but improving tax systems and generating the political will to increase funding for education and health care is not straightforward in many places. So far, some African heads of government have shown more success in mobilizing domestic resources straight into their own pockets.

There's a temptation to blame all of Africa's woes on avaricious populist leaders, but their support is often based on real complaints about structural inequality and a lack of opportunity. The WEF Africa summit is aiming to ensure this is not just a conversation about business success for its own sake, but rather inclusive growth that benefits all segments of society. Proven inclusive growth models do exist, and are often championed by social entrepreneurs, a group we'll be talking with in Durban to get their take on the inclusiveness conversation.

On one of my first trips to the region (two decades ago in West Africa), I was advised by those with more experience there to fly between countries by taking flights via Paris. A glance at the map suggested this was ludicrous so I refused, and tried my luck with local airlines and public transport. Our well-traveled readers know how stories like this end only too well (with days of difficult travel over what are short distances on the map), but much remains to be desired when it comes to trade and travel within the continent. Visas are still required between most African countries, and intra-African trade is one-quarter that within European countries. With a major trade deal among African nations in the offing for later this year, and with nationalist sentiments ascendent in some of the world's biggest economies, the idea of African states helping African states is likely to be a major topic of discussion this week too.

These issues are tough. Solving governance, trade, infrastructure investment, youth employment, inclusive economic growth won't happen with one or even a dozen African summits. But during our coverage of the World Bank Spring Meetings two weeks ago, the head of one of the world's largest development finance institutions told me that if Europe is reeling now from just a few million refugees, imagine what will happen when tens of millions more fleeing climate disasters, conflict, epidemics and joblessness arrive in the coming decades.

The global development community gets that urgency — but facing governments that are increasingly skeptical of foreign aid, I sense a growing sentiment that what's called for is patience. That we should wait out the temporary political setbacks, focus on national security messages to blunt the prospect of budget cuts, and redouble our efforts a few years from now when the situation is more favorable. In other words, hurry up and wait.

In our coverage of the WEF's Africa summit we'll be on the look out for the urgency these issues demand. Are the global leaders gathered in Durban taking the action demanded by today's reality? If not, what are they waiting for?

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.

About the author

  • Raj kumardevex

    Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief of Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community.