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Open for business – Africa rising


The 21st World Economic Forum ends in South Africa today. Nine hundred delegates have spent the past three days discussing how Africa can move ‘From Vision to Action’.

The spirit is different from earlier gatherings on Africa. ‘There is a palpable sense of optimism around Africa and the private sector at the Forum, with delegates referring to Africa as an Investment Destination’, Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Africa Chief Economist, told me today from Cape Town.

Even before the economic crisis the Continent was growing faster than most other regions, and its recovery has been more robust than expected. Growth for the coming year is expected to be nearly 6%, and the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia are all expected to be among the world’s ten fastest-growing economies.

This new dynamism is captured in a number of reports being released at or around the Forum in South Africa, including the 2011 Africa Progress Panel Report released in Cape Town yesterday.

The central theme of the Forum and the Africa Progress Report is Partnerships. Successful African countries are now using partnerships – with the private sector, donors, international agencies, NGOs etc. – smartly. Rapidly advancing African countries have left behind the psychology of dependency, and are using donors and other supporters strategically to fill key technical and financial gaps.  This is also documented in many of the stories analysed in ODI’s Development Progress project, commissioned by the Gates Foundation, which will soon release its final synthesis report.  

In the live streamed WEF discussion on innovative partnerships, panelists noted that African governments are increasingly comfortable dealing with international donors and the private sector, but also need to take the additional and perhaps more unchartered step of reaching out to other partners, including civil society. ODI’s Development Progress stories illustrate how partnerships with community health organisations/workers have been critical for improvements in health services in Rwanda and Eritrea. Education progress in Benin has been enhanced greatly by the continuous effort of a large number of international and national NGOs.  They have engaged the population in the importance of education and responded to local socio-economic and cultural concerns throughout the country that have constrained enrolment, especially of girls. The Beninese government provided the framework, but the results were in large measure achieved in partnership with organisations that focused on what works best in Benin’s context. Civil society adapted to highly localised needs and worked effectively with traditional local governance structures.

The big news of course is expanding partnerships with the private sector. This includes the social sectors as well as more traditional sectors for private investment.  A major ingredient needed for Africa’s growth is education and training. In the WEF session on competitiveness, ‘there was strong support for private-sector involvement in education –not just financing, but also for helping to design the curriculum, so that graduates will have skills that the private sector needed’, said the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan, who launched the Africa Competitiveness Report 2011 in collaboration with the African Development Bank and WEF.

Not all is well, of course. Countries such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea are projected to grow at rates far below the world average. Yesterday Kofi Annan identifiedserious leadership deficits which are hampering their growth. But a growing number of countries are now progressing under increasingly progressive leadership.

This is also a key ingredient of success identified in our Development Progress stories. Strong leaders have driven reforms (e.g. in promoting agricultural and economic progress in Ghana and Malawi), have protected vulnerable groups (e.g. in sharing economic progress in Mauritius) and encouraged local innovation and experimentation (e.g. in improving access to education in Ethiopia). These leaders may not all score the highest marks for accountability in the Western sense of the term, but they are designing policies and implementing programmes that are benefitting their citizens strongly.

As WEF delegates pack their bags and head home to the real work, it’s just possible that a few minds will have been changed, and the opening of Africa for business will ripple through a few more countries.