The Overseas Development Institute hosted a roundtable discussion in parliament this week, entitled “Africa Risen?” Inspired to continue the debate over Africa’s progress that Oliver August resuscitated with his special report for the Economist, ‘Africa Rising’, parliamentarians and civil society gathered to discuss the nature of economic growth across the African continent that has become central to discussions about the future of development in Africa.
Oliver August kicked off the discussion stating that the situation in Africa is now “Hopeful rather than hopeless”, contrasting his recent work with an Economist cover from 13 years ago that depicted a child soldier under the heading “The Hopeless Continent”. That times have changed is undeniable, but the changes are uneven and there is certainly more rising to be done in a country where it is not uncommon for someone to own a mobile phone, but be unsure where their next meal will come from.

The sustainability of current improvements is very uncertain with a heavy over-reliance on commodities – African countries must diversify their economies and participate more widely in the global trade landscape if they are to achieve lasting prosperity. Oliver pointed to ‘thinner’ borders and increased intra-African trade as vital steps in this process, but warned of the dangers that too much integration might mean that failure in one automatically signals failure throughout the region. This path must be trodden carefully as the other extreme would see failure and success continue to exist next to each other in relative isolation.

The need to move away from commodity-dependent economies was echoed by all the speakers. Martine Guerguil from the IMF, highlighted the issues of currency pricing and corruption that such economies tend to be plagued by. For Africa to continue to rise, growth must not rely on such a vulnerable source. While the effects of the global financial crisis were quite limited, it is not particularly impressive to have a fiscal deficit of 2% after a decade of growth – the figures being lauded as heralding Africa’s rise are nowhere near as high as those that took the likes of Korea and China out of poverty.

Professor of African Development at LSE, Thandika Mkandawire, was similarly cautious, warning that we must not jump straight from Afro-pessimism to Afro-euphoria. The current rates of economic growth are not a new phenomenon, but what is more worrying is the current lack of connection between high growth rates and meaningful poverty reduction. African economies are still suffering from the failure of macro-economic policies from the ‘60s and ‘70s that have left a dearth of infrastructure and poor domestic savings – Africa has traffic jams, but no road-building, and still suffers from black outs.

Workers in Senegal used to say “I am a civil servant”, but now prefer “I am in the private sector” and economic performance is now seen as the basis of legitimacy for African governments. This ideological shift in favour of capitalism, should produce a corresponding structural shift to support revenue collection, investment capacity and increased exports. This in turn should lead to more targeted spending to create sustainable economic growth that will permeate all levels of society.

Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Head of Research at Oxfam, explained that the situation is more complicated than it appears due to the politicised use of statistics. Smoke and mirrors are being used to ‘manage’ the figures, a situation that is further confused by the lack of censuses and outdated methodology – Ghana practically doubled its GDP overnight just by updating its calculation methods. Some statistics, however, continue to stand out, especially those that highlight the paradox of high economic growth and persistent levels of hunger: GDP in Asia doubled between 2000 and 2008 and led to 40m fewer hungry people, but while Sub-Saharan Africa doubled its GDP between 2000 and 2012, an additional 37m people were going hungry.

Lord McConnell pertinently asked what more the global North could do to ensure that economic growth in Africa became sustainable. Surely now is the time for us to open our markets to these developing nations and enable them to participate in the global economy and trade their way out of poverty. Breaking down the barriers to trade both between African countries and between the Global North and South is an essential part of the solution to create long term economic growth alongside meaningful poverty reduction. Africa can only rise so far, if it remains shut out of the global trading system.

summary

The Overseas Development Institute hosted a roundtable discussion in parliament this week, entitled “Africa Risen?” Inspired to continue the debate over Africa’s progress that Oliver August resuscitated with his special report for the Economist, ‘Africa Rising’, parliamentarians and civil society gathered to discuss the nature of economic growth across the African continent that has become central to discussions about the future of development in Africa. How far can Africa continue to rise while economic growth fails to translate into poverty reduction and the continent remains on the outskirts of world trade?

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