Africa

No longer the hopeless continent

Louise Redvers

A new report heralds progress in many areas in Africa but cautions against unrealistic optimism. Louise Redvers reports

A construction worker walks on scaffolding along the Nairobi-Thika highway project in Nairobi. (Thomas Mukoya, Reuters)

The African narrative is changing. The continent is shaking off its war-torn and famine-ravaged image and marketing itself as a place of innovation, growth and social development.

Once described as “The Hopeless Continent” by Economist magazine, Africa is now home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies — in the period 2010 to 2011, foreign direct investment rose by 27%.

Multiparty elections are now the norm, poverty is falling and so is the number of children dying before their fifth birthday.

Over the past decade internet usage has swelled by 2000% and Africa is now the second-largest market for cellphones after Asia.

But for all the progress and impressive statistics, experts warn that there are still many hurdles to overcome and ignoring issues such as inequality, corruption and poor governance will create serious problems in the future.

Unwarranted pessimism
In its annual report that was due to be launched on May 11 at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Ethiopia, the Africa Progress Panel says that although “the extreme pessimism surrounding Africa a decade ago was unwarranted”, so is the “current wave of blinkered optimism”.

The Switzerland-based organisation prides itself on offering a combined African and international view of the continent’s challenges. It is led by a panel of 10 internationally renowned figures, including former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, international advocate for women’s and children’s rights Graça Machel, and British singer and activist Bob Geldof.

The panel’s analysis points out potential future flashpoints relating to high unemployment, growing urbanisation and food insecurity.

Under the title “Jobs, Justice and Equity”, the report calls on African leaders to convert their new-found economic growth to opportunities and deliverables for their people. It stresses the need for a continent-wide policy focus on reducing youth unemployment, increasing agricultural productivity and continuing to work towards achieving the 2010 millennium development goals.

“We can see that African economies are persistently growing faster than any other region, that gross domestic product per capita is rising and that Africa-Brics [Brazil, Russia, India China and South Africa] trade has grown ninefold in the last decade,” said Caroline Kende-Robb, executive director of the panel’s secretariat.

A demographic dividend
“And we also see this incredible youth surge that has the potential to become a demographic dividend.”

But she cautioned: “There is another side to this balance sheet. Many of the millennium development goals will not be met, 30-million children in Africa are still not attending school and there is a real issue that the demographic dividend may become a demographic curse.”

The report says Africa’s youth will number 246-million by 2020, requiring an additional 74-million jobs.

“A failure to create jobs and opportunity for a rapidly growing and increasingly urbanised and educated youth population may have catastrophic consequences socially, economically and politically,” the document states. It adds: “Although rapid growth is creating an emerging middle class, only 4% of Africans have an income in excess of $10 per day.”

Still a way to go
According to panel member Peter Eigen, running in parallel to these economic and social challenges is a need for better overall governance and resource management.

Eigen, a former World Bank director and founder of the global antigraft group Transparency International, said there had been a lot of progress, especially in terms of resource accountability, but there was still a way to go.

“Good governance is really a tool for economic growth and job creation and we can observe that there are positive regulatory trends for business in Africa. But we have also seen that corruption and a lack of transparency remain a very serious issue in a number of countries.”

Summing up the report, which will be one of several debated this week at the forum in Addis Ababa, Kende-Robb said: “What we are trying to do is balance the picture of Africa between the hopeless continent of the past decade and the overly euphoric optimism that we see in the press today.”

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