The debate on Africa has shifted from entrenched Afro-pessimism, to frantic Afro-optimism and more recently ‘Afro-realism,’ an alternative buzzword most recently used by Mo Ibrahim, Chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and Africa’s most famous advocate for better governance and leadership. Similarly, Christine Lagarde, Head of the International Monetary Fund said that ‘Africa watching’ was the flipside of ‘Africa rising’ – although exactly who is watching what remains somewhat unclear.
What optimists, pessimists and realists have in common is that they are all intrigued about what Africa’s future is going to look like. Indeed, a less biased and more comprehensive debate on the future of a continent as diverse and complex as Africa is already a good thing.
Admittedly, it is impossible to predict the future. But this does not mean that one should not think about it. A recent African Futures paper makes the case that Africa needs to think more systematically about longer-term trends.
It argues that Africa must plan for the future if it is to take advantage of the opportunities arising from sustained economic growth and other positive developments. In other words, and true to Malcolm X: the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.
Without such efforts, the notion of African ownership is meaningless
Too few African governments and regional organisations undertake studies of long-term political, economic, social and security trends, or engage in integrated policy analysis and long-term planning to inform policy decisions. In the absence of such efforts, the often-evoked notion of African ownership is meaningless.
Long-term integrated planning is a pre-condition if systems are to be pushed to more desirable development outcomes. And this is what the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which was launched in 2013, and other national long-term planning initiatives – such as South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 or Nigeria’s Vision 2020 are all about.
Today, Africa finds itself at an important crossroads. Over the past five decades, many positive developments have taken place. Overall, human development is improving, conflict has declined and sustained economic growth presents genuine opportunities for improving peoples’ livelihoods in the longer term.
The continent is likely to continue to grow at an average annual rate of between 5% and 7% over the next 15 years, which is much faster than the world average, and the steady increase in African gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is set to accelerate. Education levels are improving across the continent, and fewer people are dying from communicable diseases such as malaria and HIV/Aids.
However, many structural weaknesses persist, which can compromise the emerging gains. The pressure to tackle these challenges simultaneously is probably the most complex task Africa faces today.
There seems to be some consensus on what macro-trends will shape Africa’s future, including population growth, urbanisation, individual empowerment, diffusion of power, the more or less crisis-prone global economy, and so on. But analysts disagree on the relative importance of the (internal) factors that could compromise prospects for sustainable development.
These range from insufficient growth (double-digit growth, as experienced in China, seems generally out of reach), deep-seated poverty and widespread inequality, to bad governance, poor infrastructure, meagre education outcomes and violent conflict, including transnational crime. The unfortunate truth is that there are too many competing priorities that African governments need to address simultaneously. And resources are of course limited. Policy-makers face difficult choices, and complex trade-offs need to be considered.
Pushing growth and private sector development on its own will not do the trick, as growth – whether double-digit or not – does not automatically translate into increased prosperity for all. As Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank, remarked pointedly during the annual meeting in May, ‘you can’t eat GDP’.
The findings of the most recent Afrobarometer survey support this statement. Africa is the second most unequal region in the world after Latin America and the Caribbean. Economic growth in contexts of high-income inequality is likely to reinforce or even exacerbate existing patterns of income and wealth distribution. In fact, high levels of inequality constitute a heavy burden on Africa. They compromise poverty reduction efforts and future growth rates, and also increase the vulnerability to violent conflict, in particular crime.
Growth does not automatically translate into increased prosperity for all
Putting resources into infrastructure investment, such as roads, for example, means limiting the resources available for other priority areas, such as maternal health or universal access to primary education. Sometimes one policy objective, such as the provision of access to electricity, for example, can undermine others, such as reducing carbon emissions in support of a greener economy.
On the other hand, many choices and policies are complementary and generate positive spin-offs, for instance improved female secondary education linked to reductions in population growth rates. This is why integrated policy analysis is so important: everything is connected somehow.
Integrated policy analysis, as understood by the African Futures Project, is the process of understanding development trends, analysing the broader implications of change in one issue area for other areas of human development and setting aggressive but reasonable targets.
This allows for better planning and for sensible target setting, which is crucial for monitoring and evaluating progress. A recent African Futures paper on prospects for poverty reduction in Africa found, for example, that the eradication of extreme poverty (defined as income below US$1,25 per day) by 2030 – a key component of the emerging international consensus on the post-2015 development agenda – is unrealistic for many African states if current dynamics continue. A goal that would see Africa as a whole reducing extreme poverty to below 20% by 2030 (15% using 2011 purchasing power parity), and to below 3% by 2063, would be more realistic.
Sensible target setting also means managing expectations. Falling short of promised development outcomes undermines a state’s legitimacy in terms of performance. This is an increasingly risky affair in the broader context of progressive individual empowerment and steadily growing citizen demand for accountability, which is additionally fuelled by the digital revolution.
In short: Africa needs to deepen its strategic reflection in order to plan for the longer term. The future belongs to Africa, only if Africa prepares for it today.
Julia Schünemann, Senior Researcher and Project Leader, ISS Pretoria