This is an opportunity to imagine new systems, says AU development chief

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, CEO of AUDA-NEPAD. Photo by: United Nations

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — COVID-19 has revealed a fragility in social and economic systems that presents an opportunity to reimagine them in ways that are more resilient, says Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, CEO of AUDA-NEPAD, the African Union’s development agency.

“The pandemic revealed the fragility of the systems we were managing before the pandemic — because if these systems were strong enough in terms of resilience, in terms of the quickness of the solutions to be designed, in terms of social cohesion, and in terms of governance systems, the [outcomes] probably would have been different,” the former prime minister of Niger said.

Opinion: COVID-19 highlights need to boost resilience of Africa’s rural poor

As restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 upend lives and livelihoods of Africa’s estimated 33 million smallholder farming families, researchers are calling for a collaborative effort to build resilient, inclusive food systems for all.

According to the World Bank, up to 100 million people could be pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19. The majority of those people are predicted to be in India and sub-Saharan Africa.

So far, governments’ economic responses to COVID-19 have been to throw billions of dollars at the problem, Mayaki said, citing the U.S. and nations within the European Union. But such cash injections are an unscalable solution and only buy time, he said, arguing that governments — including those in Africa — must now move from short-term action to thinking about the mid- and longer-term.

He called on civil society, the private sector, and governments to rethink economic and social systems based on the concept of resilience. “We have not reflected enough about which type of social systems and economic systems we should build in order to cope in the future with such a pandemic,” Mayaki said, noting that the pandemic has led communities to examine the relevance of many institutions, including governments themselves.

More resilient systems would have the capacity to “apprehend the beast and manage it when crises happen,” to empower all actors from the top to the bottom to collectively fight such a crisis, and to reduce inequalities to enable social cohesion, he said.

To create such resilience within Africa, Mayaki recommended taking a regional approach. “We know that the main obstacle to our development is fragmentation in 55 countries. … That means that the solutions we are aiming for — whether in health, transport, or energy — should be regional, because at the regional level, we have the necessary space to scale up these solutions, can benefit from economies of scale within regional markets, and can forget about these colonial boundaries, which have been the main obstacle through our development,” he said.

For example, AUDA-NEPAD is partnering with the Ecobank Group to establish an initiative supporting micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises across the region that are facing economic and social challenges as a result of COVID-19.

“We have not reflected enough about which type of social systems and economic systems we should build in order to cope in the future with such a pandemic.”

— Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, CEO, AUDA-NEPAD

New systems could also be made up of coproduced policies that are designed and heavily influenced from the bottom up — by local communities and civil society organizations, farmers’ organizations, and health worker organizations — rather than the top down, Mayaki said. As those on the front lines of the crisis, they may be best placed to weigh in on what resilience would look like in their context. It will be useful for governments and nongovernmental organizations to listen to them, he added.

“We are at a bifurcation and we are shaking at the system and we don't know what will come out of that process. Will it be a radical change through the emergence of new actors and governance systems? Will it be an incremental change that will cosmetically change the systems we have, and we'll fall again into the old systems? Will it be a way in between, where transitions might be chaotic because people will question the pertinence and the relevance of the institutions we are in? I don't know, but something will happen,” he said.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.