What does building back better in Africa look like?

African governments face an uncertain future around their sources of financing, but maybe it's time to only embrace external actors whose involvement advances African goals.

Opinion by

Image : Gyude Moore

“Building back better” has become the catchphrase of the recovery after Covid. It suggests that the pre-Covid normal was inadequate, even problematic, and the crisis has created an opportunity to rebuild better.

Everywhere else, building back better means a full embrace of a carbon-neutral future. Governments are introducing policies and passing laws to get the transition underway, and activist investors have rebelled against large multinationals whose transition plans were seen as not sufficiently ambitious. 

All these policies are unfolding outside Africa, but their impact will be felt here. How does Africa build back better? What does better look like? A change in the mindset of leadership is the indispensable element of any new paradigm. Building back better in Africa should mean looking inward for answers and reducing the conduits of external influence on African life.

To the frustration of African governments and citizens, some of the most important decisions affecting their lives – political and economic – are not made in Africa or by Africans. These decisions rarely seek or require African feedback or input and even when the worst outcomes of these decisions occur in Africa, the continent’s perspective is, at best, incidental.

Whether they want to or not, African policymakers are required to remain au courant with happenings in foreign capitals including organisations like the G7. Building back better should attempt to change this.

African Union President Felix Tshisekedi (L), French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva (R) give a statement on the sidelines of the Summit on the Financing of African Economies in Paris on May 21, 2021. (Photo: Ian LANGSDON / POOL / AFP)

Africa’s voice is ignored

Before the G7 meeting hosted by the UK in June was this year’s Paris Summit on a “New Deal with Africa”. The summit, a brainchild of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, brought together African, European, and financial leaders to craft a financing plan to assist the continent’s economies in overcoming the effects of the coronavirus. The participants agreed to advocate for rich nations to reallocate $100bn in special drawing rights to African states by October 2021. 

And therein lay the reason why a conference about a “New Deal with Africa” required African heads of state to meet in Europe. Both organisers and participants concluded that for their requests to be taken seriously they needed to be made in a Western capital and championed by a Western state.

They concluded that 54 African nations acting in concert and meeting in an African capital did not carry the leverage of a single European head of state. African leadership’s self-perception of its influence, agency and place in the world needs to change – that is the departure point of building back better.

This is not an original idea. Speaking at the African Development Bank’s annual meetings in Kigali in 2014, Rwanda’s President Kagame said that by failing to address their countries’ problems until they are invited to Europe, African leaders create the impression that they are not serious about seeking solutions or that they attend such meetings just for the photo opportunities they provide. 

Instances of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, enslaved by traffickers in Libya, and treated as less than human by North African and European governments are so commonplace that we are now numbed. Yet there is no serious effort underway in Africa to address either the push and pull factors or government mistreatment of citizens. But these same leaders will attend migration conferences as they did for the Rabat Process. 

While President’s Kagame’s criticism is blunt, it is neither wrong or irrelevant and his larger point offers a compelling case for an African continent that increasingly acts in concert to resolve African problems.

No benefit for Africa

Yet this pattern of engagement – the almost complete subservience of our own perspectives, views, and interests to those of external actors that persists in Africa’s engagement with the world – once applied to most non-European and American regions. The entire Western hemisphere was an American sphere of influence. In the Pacific and parts of Asia, European and American allies retained spheres of influence. 

Over time, other regions extricated themselves from these influences and increased their freedom of action. They pursued policies based on their interests and rejected policy advice they found counterproductive. But even as the influence and power of external actors waned elsewhere, they increased in Africa. This is untenable. The idea that Africa’s development will occur because someone in Europe will dedicate resources to it is insane.

It is possible that leadership in industrialised economies will become more enlightened and will provide the kind of support Africa needs. Maybe leadership in the US, China and Japan will see the value of Africa’s young population and alter the course of the current policies. But there’s sparse evidence for this. 

Europe is dedicating significant resources to becoming impregnable to migrants – building new walls and testing sound barriers in pursuit of “Fortress Europe” and US withdrawal from Afghanistan is reportedly intended to free up resources to focus on Asia. Even in the middle of a pandemic where the rise of variants threatens to undercut vaccination campaigns elsewhere, it has proven impossible to get the richest countries to accept that without vaccinating everyone, the pandemic does not end. 

Even the big announcement at June’s G7 meeting – a billion doses for the poorest countries in the world – “looks too small, too slow and too narrow to meet its target date of the end of next year” according to activists quoted by the Financial Times

Western policy on transition to net zero in response to the climate crisis is focused on a blanket ban for fossil fuels. Across the EU, in the UK, and increasingly in the US there is a campaign to apply a similar ban to World Bank financing. Even though Africa south of the Sahara is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions and has the greatest energy need for new generation, Western policy will limit its choice of energy sources by starving natural gas of financing – first bilaterally, then increasingly multilaterally and from private sources. 

This provides no exemption for the energy-poor, anchoring my point about Africa being incidental to these choices even when it stands to lose the most. This policy goes into effect in a world where only about 2% of global flows of foreign direct investment go to Africa, investment almost overwhelming focused on extractive industries rather than water, roads, health, and power. 

The idea, then, that when these countries build back better, they will do it for Africa’s benefit strains credulity. Should any benefit accrue to Africa, it will be, at best, minor. 

Time to stop depending on others

In a previous article, I discussed a worrying decline in infrastructure financing in Africa across all classes of financiers – bilateral, multilateral, and private. I argued that Africa would be worst affected by scaled-back Chinese lending since it was more likely to face hurdles attracting any kind of financing into its infrastructure. 

As African governments draft their post-Covid budgets and attempt to reboot their economies, they face an uncertain future around the sources of financing they will require. 

Maybe it’s time to stop looking externally for answers. Maybe it’s time to look internally and only embrace external actors whose involvement advances African goals. But this would require a sea change in African leadership and it’s unclear to me, even now, if this path is viable.

Gyude Moore is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. He previously served as Liberia’s minister of public works.

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