10 May 2012

Africa: WEF Africa 2012 - Ethiopia Coming Into the Light On the World Stage

Photo: WEF
Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the World Trade Organization.


Bekele Geleta is secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and a co-chair of this year's World Economic Forum on Africa.

When I was a young boy growing up in a rural village in western Ethiopia, famine gripped my country. In 1984, when I became the secretary-general of the Ethiopian Red Cross, we faced the worst famine our country had ever seen. So much so that our staff and volunteers had to increase support to reach over one million starving people.

Today, as I am preparing to co-chair the World Economic Forum on Africa in Addis Ababa, parts of the continent, such as the Horn of Africa and the countries of the Sahel, are again facing potentially catastrophic food crises. We need to ask why.

During the 2007-2008 global food crisis, the system failed because no one predicted it: possibly because 2008 was, in reality, a record year for food production. Then, in late 2010, the Kenya Red Cross flagged a looming food crisis in the Horn of Africa. Not many listened. In 2011, the World Food Programme and the International Food Policy Research Institute confirmed that Africa was again spiralling into the cycle of drought, high food prices and famine. In June of that year the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation moved and famine was once again declared. But the international community did not respond quickly enough. There was an apparent lack of action - some believe that funds had already been committed elsewhere; some laid blame on a lack of media focus and many cited the complex layers of socio-political factors that are rarely considered or discussed openly. For example, a lack of food reserves were part of the problem - Tanzania and Ethiopia barred the export of maize.

Ethiopia, like many African countries, has an economy which is largely based on agriculture, representing around 40 percent of GDP and the livelihoods of 77 percent of the population, thus the lives of many are dependent on rainfall. Our lands can be arid and we often face food shortages when the harvests fail. Small-scale farmers are often the hardest hit and the safety nets to protect them are still limited. More broadly, across Africa, the key issue of access to finance has not been addressed - 80 percent of the population in the agricultural sector is not served by the private capital market and so depends on official development assistance. Policies to ensure equal opportunities for global trade are non-existent and commodity trading is creating price instability and food shortages despite record production levels.

The point, of course, is that food security in Africa needs a long-term strategy and a multi-sector approach. By building strong communities we create strong economies and ultimately, contribute to political stability. By creating sustainable livelihoods in agriculture and other sectors we can create sustainable economies and the reverse is equally true.

It is my hope that the World Economic Forum on Africa will provide an important opportunity for governments and key decision-makers to think creatively, and engage with and form partnerships with the African business, corporate and humanitarian sector. Greater investment in seeds, tools and the latest farming and irrigation technology would do a great deal more in the long-run than sporadic injections of emergency funding when the crops fail. We need to break the seemingly endless cycle of hunger, suffering and dependence across the continent by encouraging greater investment in our infrastructure, schools, healthcare, agricultural sectors and small businesses. The days of quick fixes are over and we all need to pull together for the sake of future generations.

Potential investors at the World Economic Forum on Africa should be especially mindful that investment in good, solid infrastructure can greatly accelerate national prosperity, provide a boost to civil society, and push forward reforms across the continent. Indeed, this year's historical gathering of global leaders and captains of industry should not just be viewed as an opportunity for the private sector and for individuals to make gains, but to also look at the role they can play in the development of people and communities. Everyone gains from prosperous, healthy and self-reliant populations.

Ethiopia is a good example. Slowly but surely it is starting to be viewed through a different lens. The promotion of our country as a land of promise and opportunity rather than one of misfortune and suffering will encourage much-needed investment, and inspire Ethiopia's youth to throw off the shackles of the past and stride confidently into global business and political arenas. As one of the fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa, with a nationwide healthcare system that is cited as a model for emulation, our goal now should be to help lift our own people out of poverty and support development across Africa.

This is an exciting chapter in my life's story and as I take part in this historic meeting in the country of my birth I believe more than ever in Africa's potential to shape its own transformation.

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