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Is Africa's tide turning?

The Report of the Commission for Africa five years on: Still Our Common Interest headlines with a strong message about Africa’s progress. The Commissioners note that 'There is much to celebrate. African governments have done more than ever before to promote business and investment. Donors have supported this by boosting their support to infrastructure and providing the aid and debt relief that has allowed African governments to increase their expenditure in key areas such as health, education and agriculture.'  

So has the tide turned for Africa? The Commission’s positive assessment certainly chimes with recent work undertaken by ODI evidencing the robust response of several African nations to the global financial crisis and the real and at times unexpected country progress towards achieving the MDGs. So what are the drivers of this positive assessment of Africa’s progress? They are inevitably complex but critical components still stand out:

  • Connectivity – both soft (mobile technology in particular) and hard (roads and ports in particular).
  • Cooperation  – there is more regional trade cooperation than ever before and a growing commitment to political cooperation to address the shared challenges of the continent
  • Diversification – much slower than is needed  but evidence exists that at least some of Africa’s growth is driven by new business start ups in manufacturing and services
  • New actors –creating compliments to traditional financial flows - China, India, Brazil and the Arab States are growing their share of international trade with Africa, and many are increasing their inward investment and development assistance across the continent. Sovereign wealth funds are another source of ‘new’ finance increasingly available in the more successful African economies pointing to a small but perceptible decline in the dependence on foreign aid in some parts of the continent.
  • Improving politics and fewer conflicts - political institutions are gradually improving with signs of greater political openness and stability in several parts of the continent. There have been no new major conflicts on the continent since 2005.

While the Commission for Africa’s assessment celebrates these changes it is also cautious about presenting too upbeat a picture of progress. Again this chimes with our work at ODI, not least that we must recognise that Africa is a very broad canvas characterised by considerable diversity and considerable hardships for large swathes of the population. Three reasons to be cautious stand out:

  • Climate change and future climate policy regimes - there are opportunities for African economies to invest in low-carbon development but there are also hugely difficult political choices involved and a complex web of international policies and climate action to navigate along the way. The implications of increasing climate stress for some of the continents more fragile agricultural systems are also concerning. 
  • Population debt or dividend? Africa will account for 20% of the global population in 2030. Its human resources are going to be critical to future progress, but rapid population growth also places huge demands on the rate of per capita income growth, job creation and service provision. Improving the quality of the human resource base on a continent which still has the highest number of children out of school and the highest number of maternal deaths is going to be a critical policy challenge going forward.   
  • Political and economic governance - notwithstanding evidence of progress, the political trajectory of many African countries remains uncertain, made more so by the growing challenges of natural resource governance, new local and cross-border incidents of violence and criminality, and the mounting aspirations of a young and increasingly mobile population.

Still Our Common Interest identifies well the shifting risks and rewards of African growth development over the past five years. It concludes with a strident call for more and better action by African leaders and governments, businesses and the international community.  The message is simple and clear –  '....this is not about charity. It is truer now than it has ever been that, whatever part of the world we live in, we have a common interest in Africa’s prosperity'.  I for one find that hard to disagree with.