When the dust settled and the last delegate had left town, the inevitable question was posed: does the World Economic Forum on Africa, now it its 25th edition, change anything?
It is easy to think of it as another talkshop — a lot of talking and backslapping does go on, when many charge Africa should instead be focused on getting things done. You can hardly walk the corridors without tripping over a recognised name. And then there is the real question: just how much can be done in only two frenetic days?
But lost in such criticism is the inescapable fact that the resulting urgency, and the event’s focus on the region, narrows down the conversation to issues that really matter to Africa, from gaping trillion-dollar infrastructure holes to governance and human rights.
We have hundreds of leaders with regional voices from the political sphere, civil society, academia and the media, sharing their ideas on how to add more impetus to growth on the continent, which has consistently remained above the global average.
Plenty of stocktaking is done, from the performance of multilateral institutions to the continent’s response to crises, such as ebola. It can at times get defensive — what is the African Union really up to, and why put out more begging bowls when tens of billions are ferreted out each year as illicit cash?
But you also get nuggets of rich statistical information, from the region’s competitiveness and risk perception, to the number of women directors on African boards.
It is also an event that provides lots of opportunities; many are charged by fiery optimism, with feverish bilateral meetings going round the clock. But it is its ability to focus the narrative that is really unrivalled. All year round the ever-visible development community starts multiple strands of conversation in the region, though following them can be a headache for the uninitiated.
Some strands are solid, such as the continent’s demographic shift, urbanisation and the skills gap; some not so much, such as the role of China; and others quite sterile, such as the definition of the continent’s middle class.
But the WEF acts as a distiller: this year it focused on only three easily understood subject matters, wrapped up in an encompassing theme of Then and Now: Reimagining Africa’s Future.
From there you can drill down to robust issues, such as whether the continent’s growth is inclusive, to how future economic expansion will be funded, and how Africa can own its development agenda post-MDG (millennium development goals).
This year’s conversation also came at a key time for the continent, which some have said rivals 1945 as the most important year in development.
Later this month major players will meet in Addis Ababa to figure out how the continent’s next growth phase will be funded. There is already talk of “trillions”, only this time more targeted at infrastructure, rather than shooting in the dark. And as is usually the case at such events, some are already grousing about being left out.
Later in the year leaders at the United Nations are expected to adopt the successors to the much pilloried though well-intentioned MDGs, the 17-pillar Sustainable Development Goals.
And in December the Paris COP 21 (international climate conference) will bring the niggling issue of the continent’s existence sharply into view.
Establishing a common position has never been so vital, if a clear path is to emerge from all the dissonance that accompanies so many competing interests.
But from all these high-profile meetings there needs to be an answer to Africa’s lasting challenges: delivering inclusive growth, reducing the cost of doing business, providing food security and eliminating the stubborn non-tariff barriers that make intra-regional trade and integration so difficult.
The resounding message from this year’s event was the need for partnerships between the private and public sectors. In other words the era of development players going it all alone was declared long dead and buried. In this regard the World Economic Forum on Africa delivered on its promise.