The World Economic Forum (WEF) for Africa, with its trademark upbeat discussions about economic growth, continental infrastructure and transformed capital markets, was held in Cape Town last week.
Many of the key discussions of the hundreds of delegates – among them CEOs, African ministers and economists – focused on how Africa’s growth can be shared by all.
The renewed urgency around inclusive growth is driven home by increasing reports of African migrants risking everything to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life.
Amnesty International estimates that up to 1 700 migrants have already perished between January and April this year. Although many of them are from war-torn Syria, there are also hundreds of Africans.
These scenes reinforce the stereotype of Africa as a desperate continent with no future prospects. Yet these scenarios are real; and so too is the plight of many citizens across Africa. One of the themes of this year’s WEF is 'Reimagining Africa’s future' – a rather ephemeral title for a forum aimed at changing how business is done for a more prosperous world.
There is an increasing realisation that Africa has largely been rising for the few
The concern to move away from negative perceptions – like those caused by scenes of shivering migrants being rescued from a nightmare experience at sea – is implicit in the theme. Similarly horrific accounts of people trying to cross barbed wire fences in the Spanish enclosures of Ceuta and Melilla, in Morocco, just to get to Europe, have the same negative effect on brand Africa.
Migration, and xenophobia against those seeking a better life, has certainly dominated the news about Africa this year. These topics will also be discussed at the African Union (AU) Summit this week, which started with preliminary meetings on 7 June and will end with the gathering of heads of state on 14 and 15 June.
Those crowding on boats leaving the coast of Libya are fleeing for various reasons: political repression, fear of conflict or the search for better economic opportunities. Migration experts point out the complexity of the individual ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that make people want to leave their homes. The strategies thrashed out by the WEF delegates, however, don’t target those who are fleeing for fear of their lives, but rather look at structural changes that could lift millions of Africans towards a middle-income bracket in the coming years.
The real question is whether there is enough synergy between business leadership and politicians
The debate around inclusive growth is not new. It has taken some time, though, before the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative has met the increasing realisation that Africa has largely been ‘rising for the few’, as explained by Oxfam’s Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima.
Oxfam is championing strategies to promote more equal distribution of resources, and also to chase tax dodgers who deprive the continent of much-needed revenue. ‘The challenge for African economies is therefore to design and pursue growth strategies that will create good jobs and incomes for all our youth,’ said Byanyma in an editorial ahead of the WEF.
In his acceptance speech at the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) annual meeting in Abidjan last week, the newly elected president, Akinwumi Adesina, also spoke about sharing wealth and resources across countries and across the continent. ‘Together, we can build a stronger and more prosperous Africa, with smart infrastructure, energy for all, a strong private sector, new economic opportunities that will … lift many out of poverty, and regional integration for shared prosperity,’ he said. Quite a programme.
The AfDB’s African Economic Outlook, which was launched last week, echoed warnings about marginalisation and the need for inclusive wealth-sharing. The theme of the report, ‘Regional development and spatial inclusion,’ also points to the dangers of neglecting remote parts and prioritising cities over rural areas.
These scenes reinforce the stereotype of Africa as a desperate continent with no future prospects
Redistribution cannot happen overnight. The real question is whether there is enough synergy between business leadership and politicians in Africa to ensure that these scenes of desperation become something of the past. The AU has an important role in working towards peace and stability on the continent and allow business to flourish. It has started to talk about developing short and medium-term strategies to deal with rooting out illegal migration, such as cracking down on human trafficking. This is far from enough, however.
In a speech commemorating Africa Day on 25 May, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma expressed her concern about the migrants who have died in the Mediterranean. ‘We must address the very circumstances that lead our nationals to leave our shores…,’ she said. Her words were echoed by AU Commissioner for Social Affairs, Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, in a recent interview with the Institute for Security Studies’ Peace and Security Council Report. Kaloko says the AU realises that to root out illegal migration, African countries should work with the European Union and others to combat human trafficking.
In the longer term, there is consensus that the answer lies in improving conditions within migrants’ home countries. ‘We have to make the member states of the AU stable and friendly to the young people who are trekking out to the Mediterranean,’ says Kaloko. ‘In the 1970s, I was growing up in Sierra Leone and if you asked me to migrate to Europe, I would have said no, because my country was doing well, I was very comfortable.’
Kaloko, who was invited to the WEF along with several other AU commissioners, admits the AU has not been talking about the scourge of illegal migration and the fate of its citizens desperately trying to get abroad. A key, short-term issue in solving the current crisis is to address the chaos in lawlessness in Libya, he says. An important meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya is taking place on the margins of the AU summit on 12 June in Johannesburg. These initiatives should be followed through with concrete action – to change the situation of those who cannot wait for the long-term trickle-down benefits of ‘Africa Rising’.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant