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As it plans its own future, Africa engages with the world

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Tim Wall takes a closer look at issues facing the continent, including climate change, immigration, financial system stability and development models, and how they are being tackled

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By Tim Wall

This year’s summit of the African Union (AU), which turned 50 in 2013, followed an intensive round of planning for the next 50 years. The summit, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was just opening as Ms Amina Mohammed, the UN Secretary-General’s point person on development, spoke with Africa Renewal at her office on the 37th floor of the UN Secretariat building in New York.

Remarking on the 2015 end of the Millennium Development Goals, Ms Mohammed observed that the UN’s post-2015 drive, with sustainable development as its hallmark and applicable to the whole world and not just poor countries, was raising many questions on the continent. “First is the suspicion that ‘sustainable development’ is an excuse to escape from commitments to Africa,” she said, “and then whether the issue of poverty would remain central,” as it was for the MDGs.

Poverty certainly remains a dominant issue in Africa, more than in any other region. But it is also true that Africa is exiting the MDGs era in a very different position than when it entered. Economies have grown steadily since 2000 and UN economists estimate average African growth in 2014 and 2015 to exceed that of any region in the world, except for China. The continent arguably has weathered financial crises of the new century better than any other, and investors prize its growing class of consumers and its natural resources. High population growth rates pose their own set of problems, but one consequence is that Africa gains influence by recently becoming the world’s second most populous region.

National leaders can therefore be forgiven for believing they are now in a position to turn the tables in terms of lending advice. Among the key issues facing Africa today are those that can only be addressed in global terms: climate change, immigration, financial system stability, development models. So when the AU approved a “common position” on the post-2015 development agenda at this year’s summit, “it came at exactly the right moment,” said Ibrahim Mayaki, head of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the development arm of the AU.

Classroom in Mali. (Photo: Curt Caremark/The World Bank)

Classroom in Mali.
(Photo: Curt Caremark/The World Bank)

The common position embodies a shifting of the development model from socially-oriented planning to one focused on value addition and properly taking advantage of resources, he said. Via a committee chaired by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the AU document went through a number of drafts, gathered views of business and civil society, and was reviewed at the head-of-state level.

On the UN side of post-2015 talks, the continent is already well represented. Civil society, business, political and academic representatives sit on the high-level panel set up by the Secretary-General, and President Johnson Sirleaf is one of three heads of state acting as co-chairs (Prime Minister David Cameroon of the UK and President Susilo Bambang Yudyohono of Indonesia being the others). Kenyan Permanent Representative to the UN Macharia Kamau co-chairs an Open Working Group tasked with recommending a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by this year.

Along with Africa’s newfound strengths, however, are worries, some new and some left over from the past. These concerns clearly impinge on how Africa regards world priorities in its common position, and not only in its own development agenda.

Climate change is bearing down on the world. With its climatic zones ranging from warm to tropical, Africa is likely to bear the brunt of this change. Agriculture is especially threatened. Thirty of 54 African countries are classified by the UN as among the world’s least developed, and in these nations 70% of the population lives in rural, farm-oriented regions but adds only 30% to economic growth. Food must be imported, rendering people and countries vulnerable to price volatility, global financial jolts and extreme weather patterns.

High birth rates have worked to give Africans a median age that is two thirds that of Latin America and half of much of the rest of the world. The demographic bulge of those in their teens and twenties can become a ticking time bomb of social discontent rather than a productive boon unless the problem of high unemployment is solved. “The main challenge will be job creation for youth,” said Dr Mayaki. “If we do not succeed, this will de-stabilise countries.”

In fact, youth discontent is most likely a subtext in new conflicts spreading across the Sahel and is hobbling the strides toward peace and stability that Africa has taken in the 21st century. The northern rim of the continent, once counted on as a bastion of stability, has been shaken by fallout from the Arab Spring – Mayaki cited the role of disenchanted, disenfranchised youth as well as governance issues in Tunisia. At the continent’s southern tip, South Africa is experiencing more turmoil than it has seen in many years.

A young generation, heard at global discussions, declares that its stake in the future is not being recognised and this has become a crosscutting concern. Youth unemployment is felt acutely around the globe.

Protecting economies by protecting nature

The “common position” focus on economic transformation, inclusive economic growth, building productive capacity and installing badly needed infrastructure may obscure the main characteristic of sustainable development, which is the marriage of environmental, economic and social concerns.

The concept of sustainable development  has been around since the 1970s, but the marriage in practice has been more like a divorce, especially between economy and environment, observed Betty Maina, Chief Executive of Kenya’s Association of Manufacturers and a member of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda.

 

That environmental conservation seems to run parallel to, rather than in concert with economic development was suggested by former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi as early as the first UN conference on the environment and development. People living in desperate poverty, she noted, are not going to worry exceedingly about long-term environmental prospects, or provide a political base for environmental action.

 

Agriculture and food security – the theme of this year’s AU summit – are among the areas that may be able to pull together the sustainable development universe of economic progress, social justice and environmental protection.

 

As can be seen, the overwhelming majority of the poor in Africa and around the world depend for their livelihoods on the natural world, whether through farming, forestry, fishing or pastoralism. But this access to natural capital is not being adequately transformed into financial capital, points out Elliott Harris, director of the UN Environmental Programme in New York. The population often lacks property rights, and there is an absence of financial intermediation through banks, credit unions or cooperatives. Geographically isolated and working on smallholder plots or vaguely defined common lands, the poor cannot capitalise on the soil and the water without technologically advanced agricultural inputs, food storage facilities and transport infrastructure, while their families’ futures are under threat of climate change and degradation of land and water resources.

 

A UN manifesto on sustainable development that can capture the imagination the way the MDGs often did can spur the realisation that a healthy environment, especially in the context of an upward trend in world food prices, is the economic sine qua non for poor countries and poor people.

 

Children studying math in Harare, Zimbabwe.  (Photo: Panos/Mikkel Ostergaard)

Children studying math in Harare, Zimbabwe.
(Photo: Panos/Mikkel Ostergaard)

Financial resources

As the UN moves toward the post-2015 crossroads, the key topic of implementation is being treated gingerly. Disputes over financial assistance from the North have stalemated numerous UN discussions in recent past. Africa and the UN are insisting that a post-2015 agenda should not be an occasion to walk away from commitments made in the context of the MDGs. But there is also an argument that aid is not the only relevant financial resource, with the implication that it should not become a deal-breaker.

“Without ODA [official development assistance], there will be no development agenda,” said Ms Mohammed, adding: “It’s an important part of the mix – but probably a small part. We know that the necessary financial resources are in existence. If there is agreement on the need for planetary solutions, the next step is to find a framework to unlock those resources. We need to build the capacities of tax systems and create suitable environments to access private equity. We need to make better use of aid at the levels that we already have.”

Dr Mayaki, while encouraging donors to abide by the UN target of devoting 0.7% of income to ODA, notes that revenue from domestic resources in Africa has multiplied by a factor of four over the past 20 years. He also cites an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study finding that out of a billion Africans, less than 60 million live in countries where aid is more important than domestic resources.

Mayaki aims for intelligent use of private-public partnerships, involving both domestic and international business. In addition, he says that the African drive for industrialisation favours a shift of South-South cooperation from political to economic issues.  It’s not just a matter of resource-for-infrastructure exchanges with China, he says, but it’s Brazil looking to Angola and Mozambique for private-public partnerships, Indian entrepreneurs coming to East Africa or South African mining companies doing business in Guinea and Mauritania.

Civil society leaders are worried about the increased privatisation of development, while business leaders in Africa, notes the UN Global Compact, have a mixed view on the relative importance of aid versus economic growth to development.

With few exceptions, aid remains at the top of the list of issues that could ignite and combust in the face of negotiators, the issues being market access, pollution controls that may appear to constrain production or consumption, the rights of women and minorities, and the simple fact that the elevation of the priority topic of one interest group can be perceived as a downgrade of another topic. The value added of a sustainable development agenda – its ability to interconnect virtually all issues – poses an implementation challenge. For now, it places explosives along the road to a global agreement.

“There will be many tense moments,” predicts Ms Muhammed.

This article was originally publish in Africa Renewal


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