15 December 2017

Zimbabwe: 'Africa Rising' Narrative Not an Illusion

opinion

As the year draws to the end, it is prudent that we interrogate various narratives that economists have proffered on Africa's future prospects. One dominant storyline that almost became a contested cliché was the "Africa Rising" narrative, which many believe was a ruse meant to delude Africans into complacency. So contested was the "Africa Rising" narrative that the Africa Report magazine of May 2017 had an interesting article titled "Is Africa development an illusion?"

In the article, the writer pieced together viewpoints of various experts who were all critical of the euphoric appraisal of the continent as a region on the rise. Former African Development Bank (AfDB) president Donald Kaberuka sparked the discussion on a cautionary note cynically quoting two professors- Paul Collier and John Willem Gunning who in 1999 wrote that "Africa is a capital hostile region." Kaberuka said the two professors had four reasons for labelling Africa "a capital hostile" region. The first was lack of openness to trade, followed by high-risk environment, then low level of social capital and poor infrastructure.

After laying out the two professors' premise, which is very common among Western investors, Kaberuka then further discredited such narrative as having been overtaken by many positive developments that have taken place on the continent.

"On lack of openness to trade, Africa has made huge progress -- tariffs are down everywhere. We still have risks of some types but, as Mo Ibrahim likes to say often, how many companies have been nationalised in Africa in the past 25 years," asked Kaberuka keen to point out large advances made in social capital on the continent.

Kaberuka insisted that the AfDB has had its share in contributing to infrastructure development in Africa to the tune of more than US$28 billion. He gave Marrakesh Menara Airport and another in Casablanca as examples.

"Everywhere I have been, we are making progress. It's different from what it was in 1999. We are no longer a capital hostile region," Kaberuka emphatically concluded.

But was Kaberuka's comments not rooted in the typical generalised "Africa" as a country assessment? What about the Economist magazine's 2000 edition, which ran a cover story with the title "Hopeless Africa"? And was he aware of Robert Guest's (Economist's Africa Editor) book published few years later aptly titled "The Shackled Continent" a book that concluded that bearing a miracle, Africa's future was doomed.

What has fundamentally changed between 2000 and 2017, which has led many to suggest that the continent is on course to self-sustenance? In buttressing the "Africa Rising" narrative, many examples are fished from the East Asian "tigers" and countries in the West when they were rising.

Indeed, Africa has many positive stories that have occurred since the post-decolonisation period. But are these stories so concrete to convince the world that Africa is on its way to economic glory?

Contributing her views on the sidelines of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation governance discussion, which took place in May this year, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Vera Songwe was far from being charitable. "Look at Nigeria. Two-thirds of the population live below a dollar a day. For them, this discussion about growth is an illusion," Songwe quipped.

Songwe's reasoning is based on the fact that more than two-thirds of the continent's population works in the agriculture sector and according to her they only work for three months and become redundant for the rest of the year.

Songwe's view is that 70 percent of the continent's population is essentially unemployed for nine months and this segment of the population mostly comprise of women and young kids who do not see the great new health facility in Tangier (is a major city in north-western Morocco) or the fancy mall in Kenya.

There is something wrong with Songwe's viewpoint, which places 21st century agriculture in Africa at a rudimentary level. It also appears as though Songwe segments all those in agriculture as socially and economically disconnected from the wider economic realm.

Far from Songwe's condescending view, agriculture in most sub-Sahara Africa has advanced phenomenally and people rarely work for just two months given a variety of crops that are grown throughout the year.

A large chunk of newly resettled farmers in Zimbabwe are into a variety of cash crops like tobacco and also wheat. Some are even located close to water bodies and the city is no longer an alien territory as most of their transactions are done there.

It is also pertinent to highlight the fact that despite agriculture being the anchor in most countries, the African continent is also endowed with natural resources in the form of precious minerals needed in the manufacturing of critical industrial components.

However, Africa's perceived stagnation is mainly attributed to what is called "resource curse". Analysts attribute the problem of "resource curse" to corruption and a leadership that is divorced from the daily struggles of ordinary people. On this view, Songwe is on point when she says "African leaders are on average 66-years-old and our population is made up of people in the average age of 25 years." She is adamant that it is an illusion that the leaders represent their people.

Indeed, many African leaders have been accused of using their positions for personal gain, yet power should never be used as a shortcut for amassing wealth. Instead of forming companies people are becoming politicians.

Cautionary optimism is thus justifiable given the rampant corruption in most African countries. African economies precariously fragile, especially with the collapse of currencies when commodity cycle recently turned.

What is pertinent in Africa today is not the lack of connectivity or lack of awareness of the broader dynamics outplaying in an individual country by a large chunk of the populace. Rather, the major sticking issue is the demographic challenge. Former World Trade Organisation boss, Pascal Lamy believes this is an issue that the continent needs to confront with vigour.

In his view, "There are a billion people on the continent today. By 2050, that will double. To avoid this becoming a migratory wave impossible for Europe to manage, you need 4-5 percent growth in gross domestic product per capita (per year) between 2020 and 2050."

It is without doubt that Africa needs to harness the youth dividend and productively inspire growth and industrialisation. But instead of ringing alarm bells, Morocco's chief executive of SNTL thinks Africa has a lot to borrow from to convert the "Africa Rising" mantra into reality. He argues that the Moroccan model of diversified growth, with industrial policy driving key sectors is something the continent should look at.

And Morocco has been steadfast in ignoring advice from Washington DC. The country has had heavy investment in infrastructure, some of it not immediately productive and the World Bank keep on saying "It's not returning what it should be". But to date Morocco is one of the few countries in the top 20 in terms of maritime connectivity.

It is worth noting that Morocco has also pushed for "orthodox" policies not only tariffs, but regulatory framework and the result is that country is bound up into global industrial supply chain.

With IMF predicting a 4,5 percent average growth this year for Africa's 48 sub-Saharan countries where more than 800 million people live. That is much above the 3,6 percent global average.

Far from being a ruse meant to lull Africans from actively focusing on making their economies grow, the "Africa Rising" narrative is real. Africa may be dogged by conflict and diseases but it's definitely not stagnant or regressing.

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