8 May 2014

Africa: World Economic Forum Africa - Not What You Imagine

Photo: World Economic Forum
Bineta Diop, one of the Co-Chairs of the World Economic Forum on Africa, is founder and president of Femmes Africa Solidarite and Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security, African Union.

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Abuja — The official conference hasn't even started yet, except for an opening reception I missed last night because the Rockefeller Foundation – a Forum strategic partner – was counter-programming with a reception for its centenary initiatives, including benefiting a million people through digital jobs and transforming cities.

But already I've been to a Friends Africa workshop on innovations for health; a Forum convening of family planning experts; a General Electric press event introducing a corporate social responsibility drive called GE Kujenga; and a media dinner discussing (what else?) the abducted Chibok girls and other hot topics. I've had intense conversations with a diversity of people about an astonishing range of issues. This while missing several sessions I'd promised to attend.

If the Africa version of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) – best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland – was ever an elite enclave where deals get done in splendid isolation from the realities most of us face, it isn't anymore. This year's theme is inclusive growth and job creation. If you've complained about 'jobless growth' or the widening gap between rich and poor, hear this: the world's decision makers are listening.

Activists argue that most ruling elites in Africa and too many of the corporations that extract the continent's resources don't care about the human consequences. They're too busy increasing their own wealth. As the top guy at Union Carbide in then-Rhodesia once told me, "We don't have to worry what happens here. We're making over 24 per cent profit a year."

But sustainable economic development is surely in the interests of both governments and businesses. Extreme social unrest is the alternative, and nobody benefits from that (unless you're into armaments). Whether recognizing the adverse consequences of current poverty levels is enlightened self-interest or compassion, it's happening.

Here's a sampling of what I heard yesterday. Africa will experience a huge economic and demographic dividend by providing contraception access to the millions of women who want it but can't get it. A focus on nutrition in a child's first thousand days could prevent 'stunting' – which limits a person's intellectual and physical potential forever but also stunts GDP growth. Coca Cola has spent over $65 billion on distribution and logistics to be 'everywhere', and it will use that ubiquity to get urgently needed services to remote areas - the Last Mile project. GE plans to make money by investing in large-scale electrical generation for a power-hungry continent, but it is supporting innovative initiatives to deliver off-grid power to left-behind communities.

And how about these scenarios? Malaria is one of the biggest killers in history, and if there's not a push to extend recent successes in combating it, it could surge back to pre-DDT levels with unimaginable results. (Remember that 'Foggy Botton', where the U.S. Department of State now stands, got its name from the swamps whose miasmas were thought responsible for 'the fevers' before toxic chemicals eliminated the malaria-causing mosquitoes.)

Same with polio, which knows no national boundaries. Governments aren't delivering available medications to treat highly contagious multi-drug-resistant TB, so pretty soon you may need to wear respirators every time you board an airplane anywhere in the world. As one expert said, "Condoms and behavior change can't save you."

If you thought stories about health care were boring, meet Toyin Saraki, with whom I had the most compelling conversation of the day. Being born to a privileged family didn't save her from losing a baby in her first pregnancy, and she has devoted her life to saving other mothers from the agony she experienced. More about that later on AllAfrica.

She's also in the forefront of the grass-roots campaign, led by Nigerian women, on behalf of the schoolgirls. The fact that everyone reading this will understand the reference is a tribute to the civil society actions here that launched an exploding Twitter campaign - #BringBackOurGirls - and filled city streets all over this country. It's due to them that international media and the Nigerian and international governments are now reacting to a long-festering tragedy. (Don't get me started about American media who largely ignored the girls' kidnapping for three weeks while giving saturation coverage to the Korean ferry that sunk the next day.)

The girls were gathered in such vulnerable numbers because they and their families valued education and their schools have been closed for months. They came to sit for exams. But the terrible plight of the region's children is not new.

Some 1500 people have been killed in the northern Nigeria insurgency this year alone by both Boko Haram and government forces. The northeast is under a state of emergency declared by the federal government, which cut cell phone service to the area. A quarter of a million people have been forced from their homes. Amnesty International says more than three million people are facing a humanitarian crisis.

More than 300 people were killed last month, including 55 boys on 11 February in Borno State when 25 teenage girls were abducted. Two weeks later 59 boarding school pupils were killed in Yobe State. And so it has gone, day after day, month after month.

International reporters are streaming in, talking anxiously about two bombings some 30 kilometers outside Abuja in recent days. What most of them didn't tell you earlier - and some of them didn't know when they arrived – was about the still mysterious clashes near the presidential villa at State Security Service headquarters on March 30. If you were following Nigerian tweeters – or reading AllAfrica! – you would have been able to follow the action live, while residents of the area reported hours of heavy weapons fire and hovering helicopter gunships.

Whatever else is discussed when the WEF gets underway, the sense of insecurity that has virtually closed down this capital city until the event is over will be on the agenda. Streets are mostly empty except of highly visible police and military. Areas around hotels hosting WEF events are off limits to all but specially tagged vehicles.

Power Africa – a signature program of the Obama administration – will be a constant underlying theme at the Forum. An event that relies heavily on electricity and connectivity will be running much of the time on off-grid power. While I've been tapping this into my laptop, the generator where I'm staying has kicked in more than a dozen times as the power went off. (And I, who know better, forgot my surge protector!)

Alongside its challenges, there's another part of Nigeria's story: its expanding economy – now called Africa's largest, its entrepreneurial spirit, its feisty free press, its fashion and entertainment industries, its 170 million population domestic market – in a word, its potential – is also on display.

WEF has been criticized for staging such a high-profile meeting in a place like Nigeria. I say, "What better place?"

Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault once told a group of South African reporters that the only advocacy permissible to a journalist is to support the right to dignity of every person on the planet. Nigeria is home to a lot of those people.

May they, in the next few years, find the dignity they all deserve.

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