By Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General
How many times have you heard speeches beginning with such words, “The trouble with Africa…”? Not only does that give a starting point to any negative conversation, but it is based on assumptions that are factually wrong. It also implies that Africa is the same.
Those who make sweeping generalisations don’t talk of Africa’s rich cultures; its status as the cradle of humankind – the successful examples of democracy and governance, or the dynamic economies.
Yes, there is disease, lack of education, human rights concerns, and increasing climatic insecurity. But these are not unique to the countries in Africa. There is no more reason to lump all Africans into one category than there is to do so about the people in any other continent or country or even city.
Ignorance breeds ignorance and loss of opportunity. My success and that of others like me, in turning public perceptions is the foundation for business and investment success. Bad news always overshadows good news about Africa in the West, where negatives perpetuate their own myth about the continent.
People look at Africa and see tensions between the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature. They see money disappearing into Swiss bank accounts (and incidentally, corruption has both a demand and supply side – money wouldn’t disappear in the way it does offshore unless there were those at the other end willing to take it), rather than staying on the continent. Nearly 40% of the money generated in Africa leaves it which compares with something like 90% of earnings in East Asia which stay there.
The fact that Africa still attracts less than 2% of world trade is scandalous – but I again point out that there is a demand and supply factor in this: Africa can supply but its options are limited if the demand conditions are distorted by trade barriers.
The journey that is ‘democracy’ goes on, and the Commonwealth walks alongside – mediating tensions, building electoral commissions, helping to introduce new voting systems, even drafting new Constitutions in places like Swaziland. It might be two or three or four steps forward and one back – but overall it’s forward.
The economic situation looks good, too, even if much of it is driven by the resource needs of China and India. Much of Africa’s wealth lies in the ground – and now, they are starting to benefit this continent. Look at places like Nigeria, Botswana, and Ghana. Look at China, and Russia, and India, and Brazil, wanting to invest in Africa. Remittances now come back to Africa to the tune of $8 billion a year. In the last five years, sub-Saharan economies have routinely grown at nearly 7% per annum. Well over $50 billion-worth of debt has been cleared and there has been exponential growth in the numbers of listed companies.
Many good things have happened unnoticed in Africa in the last decade.The positive lies in what former IMF Head Michel Camdessus called the ‘silent revolution’ – the macroeconomic stabilization which has taken place in Africa, alongside a rise in commodity prices. Budget deficits and inflation rates have been cut; debt has been better managed, and in many cases canceled. Countries like Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Ghana have massively improved their investment climate.
How can non-Africans and African alike, help consolidate the gains, and turn around some of those persistent negative perceptions? Let me give a very brief answer – in terms of politics and economics.
2005 was supposed to be the year of Africa: the Gleneagles G8 Summit, the Commission for Africa, and more. In essence, it revolved around a deal: non-African countries – especially the G8 – would re-commit: with more and ‘better’ aid, more debt relief, and a trade deal that allowed African countries to trade as equals, and indeed gave them the time and technical support to become ‘equals.’
Almost three years on, the G8 has met some but not all of its promises. Its aid money is pledged but not totally forthcoming. The Doha Round still has its wheels spinning with little traction, to the eternal shame of those who have had it good for so long: the US and the EU especially. The EU is still seen to be imposing a raw deal on its African, Caribbean and Pacific partners in the Economic Partnership Agreements. They are supposed to open up new opportunities for all and give ACP countries a lift, not just new markets for Europeans.
Meanwhile, Africa has shown how serious it is about its own future in its own hands. The strengthened AU, a lively NEPAD, and the sometimes painful work of the African Peer Review Mechanism are indicators. I’m pleased, by the way, that 27 African countries have now signed up to that self-monitoring APRM – with its focus on political governance, economic governance, corporate governance, and socio-economic development.
Africa is rich in natural resources. It’s in the middle of a technological revolution. Its future can be rosy, if it continues to take ownership of its future. It begs the question which President Museveni of Uganda asked his fellow Commonwealth Heads of Government, when they met in Kampala last year. How, he asked, can we breed African, not just Asian, tigers? The Commonwealth argument is that Africa’s path to transformation and development requires greater inclusiveness and fundamental democratic principles.
A market analyst might look at Democracy in 2008, weigh up its potential returns, management and business risk, and conclude that it is volatile stock. Others might even conclude that it is overvalued for the return on the investment. Yet it remains our greatest aspiration. It remains the blue-chip magnet which draws people – just look at levels of migration towards the most established democracies.
Economic development, too, is best when it’s democratic and inclusive. Hence the need to promote all business activity – small and large, and that accommodates women and youth entrepreneurs. Hence, too, the need for responsible business – accountable socially and environmentally as well as financially. The clearest indication of a society’s commitment to itself is that its citizens invest their hard-earned cash in the country itself, and don’t take their money beyond its borders to keep it ‘safe’. People should have the confidence to live, work, save and invest in their own countries.
I point to Mo Ibrahim, whose life’s work and money is now dedicated to promoting governance in Africa. Many of you will know that the first Mo Ibrahim Award went to Joaquim Chissano, former President of Mozambique. Mozambique is a Commonwealth country which faces many challenges, but it is meeting them. In 15 years, levels of poverty have been cut by a third, and the numbers of children in school have been doubled. That’s what I mean by Africa’s upward trajectory of progress and hope.
My message is quite simple: don’t judge the whole continent by the negative few; look at the parts one by one; think about their history and the challenges others have created for those who live there before criticising the situation today; and develop meaningful long term partnerships.
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Wednesday, March 12, 2008
By Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General