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Africa needs to move towards Afro-realism

There is much to celebrate in this important year for Africa – the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity. The economy of our continent is growing faster than that of any other. Global attention has rarely been greater or more positive.

The organisation's creation marked a watershed in Africa's history and development. Its anniversary provides the opportunity to reflect on progress over the past half-century and to focus on what needs to be achieved to meet the bold ambitions of its architects.

This week, my foundation published the 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance. The results, which allow us to examine trends back to 2000, shine a light on the state of governance across the continent and the important challenges we face over the coming decades.

The index shows us that Africa has achieved progress in many key areas. It reveals that 94% of people on the continent live in a country that is better governed now than 13 years ago. Impressive gains have been made in terms of sustainable economic opportunity, gender, health and education. This is welcome news.

Tempting as it is, we must resist jumping to overly simplistic or optimistic conclusions about Africa and the direction it is heading. We have to guard against the "Africa rising" or "the hopeful continent" headlines – just as in the past when it was wrong to dismiss Africa as a "basket case" or a "hopeless continent". We need to move decisively away from both Afro-optimistic and Afro-pessimistic headlines towards Afro-realism.

Information gap
To truly understand our vast continent and to help to drive effective and sustainable governance improvements, reliable and accurate data is essential. It is also something that has been lacking. The index, with almost 90000 data points, is helping to fill this information gap and reveals that governance trends in Africa are both complex and diverse.

First, although the overwhelming majority of Africans have enjoyed improved governance since the turn of the century, we must not forget the 6% of Africans who live in countries where governance has deteriorated. Madagascar, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Libya and Mali remind us that the positive overall trends experienced by most of the continent are not shared by all.

Second, although improvements have been seen within the index's categories of human development and sustainable economic opportunity, smaller gains have been made in the category of participation and human rights. Even more worrying, safety and rule of law scores have shown year-on-year declines since 2010.

The index's data suggest that the underlying factors driving recent declines in safety and the rule of law include increased threats to safety of the person, worsening social unrest and a rise in human trafficking. These findings should sound a clear warning signal that we may be looking at a future with fewer regional conflicts but increased domestic social unrest and violence.

Third, despite overall progress on the continent, there is a widening difference in performance between the best and worst governed countries on the continent – the "haves" and the "have-nots". Mauritius's score, at the top of the table, is more than 10 times that of Somalia at the bottom.

There is a crucial lesson here. By working together more closely, best practice – including which policies, structures and approaches are most effective for a country and its citizens – can be shared.

Sharing is in the African spirit. It's embedded in our communities, through our local businesses, villages and family networks. But the truth is that over the past 50 years Africans have not shared enough of our knowledge, our data or even our goods with each other.

Traditional donor aid is diminishing. The reliance on foreign partners to buy our commodities and send us financial resources has to come to an end. Africa is rich enough to stand on its own feet, but more work needs to be done. There can be no sustainable African unity without building strong cohesion and solidarity within the continent.

Overall then, an honest assessment of the continent as supported by the index should note Africa's many achievements, but it should also include a pragmatic acknowledgement of the distance we have to go.

The index tells us that the outlook is mixed and that neither Afro-pessimism nor Afro-optimism does justice to modern Africa.

?Mo Ibrahim is the founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation

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