For Africa as a whole, the past decade has been, by and large, a golden period in terms of economic growth and political maturity and the outlook for the next decade is very encouraging. However, success cannot be measured by growth figures alone. Serious dangers loom ahead and must be addressed if the growth is to be sustained and move the continent to the next level. This is the gist of the latest Africa Progress Panel Report. It warns that ignoring the danger signals could not only halt Africa’s progress in its tracks but could inflame social unrest and lead to another dark age of conflict and instability. African Business editor Anver Versi analyses the report.
This year’s report opens with the acute observation that commentary on Africa has suffered from ‘extreme mood swings with the pendulum moving from episodes of pessimism to euphoria’.
Only 12 years ago, the report reminds us, the ‘Bible of capitalism’, the Economist magazine, dismissed Africa as the ‘hopeless continent’. While those of us who know Africa better protested angrily at this arrogant stereotyping of a whole continent and its people, one must admit that this was the prevailing view outside the continent itself and the Economist was merely reflecting the views of the majority in the North.
The pendulum has now swung the other way with the Economist now convinced that Africa is the ‘hopeful continent’. But while the Economist may be grudging in its praise of the progress that Africa has made, others may have gone overboard. Africa is now the ‘last frontier’, the ]world’s newest and greatest growth pole’, the ‘salvation of global economy during a time of crisis’ and, as an Indian government minister put it, “If you are not in Africa, you are not on the global playing field”.
The report brings us down to earth: “The extreme pessimism surrounding Africa a decade ago was unwarranted. So too, is the current wave of blinkered optimism.” While real gains have been made, “governments and their development partners need to reflect on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of the recent record – and assess both the risks and the opportunities that lie ahead.”
This is very much in keeping with the editorial philosophy of this publication which has charted Africa’s modern history continuously for over 45 years, reporting on its highs and lows as honestly as humanly possible. But as essentially an African publication, our coverage has reflected the passion and emotion we have felt for our continent and while we have been unstinting in our praise for the continent when the right things have been done, we have not hesitated to apply equal passion to pointing out failures and weaknesses. After all, this is our continent for better or worse and, unlike foreigners, we cannot take a dispassionate view of our motherland.
With this in mind, we welcome the latest APPR and will study its outcomes and recommendations with great care. The APPR, under the chairmanship of that great African champion, Kofi Annan, has Africa at its heart and soul. As such, its warnings should not be taken lightly. Its findings affect us all, in all our capacities and are not meant only for the leaders and decision makers.
For any nation to make real progress, economic growth figures are not enough. High growth does not automatically translate into better, more fulfilling lives for the majority of the people. But if the majority does not benefit, then growth figures are meaningless since the objective of all national economic planning must be to improve the welfare of the majority.
The report boils all this down to a simple equation: jobs, justice and equity. Without these ingredients in place, it warns, growth can be counterproductive and can in fact, lead to the type of social mobilisation that brought about the Arab Spring. This event was a warning, if ever a warning were needed, that national planners and the executive ignore the people at their peril.
But let us place matters in their correct perspective. Let us first acknowledge that this discussion about the distribution of national wealth has only taken on a realistic dimension because, for the first time since the era of independence, Africa is in a position to make it happen. During all the other decades leading up to this point, Africa was battling one crisis or the other. The continent was fire fighting on many fronts – the political, social, cultural and, of course, economic.
Those battles have not all been won – not by a long distance and some countries are still locked in deadly conflict; and a few others are superficially calm but simmering like latent volcanoes underneath. I am referring to those countries that are still gripped under the suffocating hands of autocrats who have come to believe that whole nations and their populations are their personal property to do with, use and abuse, as they wish. They should heed the signs of the times – one by one autocratic and unjust regimes have been biting the dust all over the world.
But for the majority of African nations, the last decade has seen progress to a greater or lesser extent. This has come about due to a combination of myriad factors of which the most important has been a different mind-set, a new confidence in our own abilities and a determination to create a better tomorrow. Let us celebrate and enjoy Africa’s success – it has been a long time coming but let us not rest on our laurels or take anything for granted. No condition is permanent.