The Future of Africa

In Africa, there’s never been a better time to be alive.

The last two decades have seen steady improvements in life expectancy, per capita income and access to education, to the extent that a child born in Africa today has a better chance of living longer, avoiding extreme poverty, receiving a primary school education and joining a growing economy than ever before. Given that by 2050 a third of all the world’s children will be African, this is not a minor outcome.

Yet not all the movement is in one direction. The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact, forcing much of Africa into recession. While the continent’s long-term outlook for growth remains positive, and some of its most dynamic economies are surging ahead at 8% a year, too often the expansion is inconsistent, fails to create jobs and delivers benefits that don’t trickle down. Africa as an economic region may have grown in importance, but the overall picture remains patchy.

There is inconsistency, too, when it comes to governance, the issue that for me ties it all together. Without good governance – without transparent, trustworthy and democratic leadership – social and economic gains are wasted. A good year for Africa’s 54 nations can quickly be followed by setbacks and backsliding. That said, the last decade has broadly been a period of improvement. In 2019, a little over 60% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people were living in a country where overall governance, as measured by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, was better than in 2010.

Clearly, I am an optimist, and there are good reasons to be optimistic. But we must also be realists. By 2030, a fifth of the world’s population will be from Africa. Every year, tens of millions more young people from the continent join the labour market. They need the skills and training that allow them to maximise their potential, whether working in traditional industries like agriculture, manufacturing and commerce, or in the digital, services and green industries that are increasingly driving the global economy, and which Africans want to be part of as well.

While some economies in Europe, Asia and the United States are already bouncing back from the pandemic, with vaccination drives that have covered 60-70% of their populations, Africa is at the beginning of its response. Its economies have been battered, and now its populations are being infected in ever greater numbers. Leaders deserve credit for enforcing lockdowns and limiting infections, but they have struggled to get hold of vaccines. As ever, the world has not stepped up. By the start of April this year, only 31.6 million vaccine doses had been distributed across Africa, enough for just 2.6% of the population. While COVAX is trying, it is not enough. Generous commitments from wealthier nations are yet to be delivered.

It’s too early to count the full cost of the pandemic for the continent. But it is only likely to deepen inequalities, within countries and between them, and impose deep costs on governments ill-equipped to handle the shock. The knock-on impact will be fewer resources for areas like education, training and investment, which can lead to frustration and anger, and an increased risk of unrest or conflict.

 

Dr Mo Ibrahim is the Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which he established in 2006 to support good governance and exceptional leadership in Africa. Sudanese-born, Dr Ibrahim has a distinguished business career, including founding Celtel International, one of Africa’s leading mobile telephone companies which pioneered mobile services in Africa.

By 2030, a fifth of the world’s population will be from Africa. Every year, tens of millions more young people from the continent join the labour market. They need the skills and training that allow them to realise their potential.

In many countries, children have missed out on months of education and social contact. At home with few resources, they have gone hungry, missed health check-ups, and been exposed to greater risk of violence and abuse. UNICEF’s own research shows barely 5% of children and young people in West and Central Africa have access to the internet, compared to a global average of 33% and 90% in Europe. If home-schooling has been a struggle in the richest countries, think what a profound challenge it has been in Africa. The impact on mental health and wellbeing is significant, and the consequences enduring.

It is at moments like these – hinge-points where decades of hard-earned progress can rapidly be undone – that governance comes to the fore. The pandemic is an unprecedented test of leadership, one which many African leaders have stepped up to. Some have acted more decisively than peers in other parts of the world. But they can’t rest on their laurels. Every day brings new, harder decisions that will shape outcomes for generations.

On public health, on education, investment and even niche issues like tax policy, leaders must act smartly at a national, regional and continental level. They need to seize the opportunity to introduce policies that provide better protection for their populations as they weather the pandemic, emerge from it and look to regain the path they were on.

And they must be joined in that effort by partners globally – likeminded and committed partners like Britain has been in the past – which understand the continent, want to correct the wrongs in their history, and ensure that aid and development are seen as an investment in the future, not an emergency stop-gap.

So how does Africa turn this crisis into a positive? For me, it is about creating opportunities for children and young people to prosper. That requires a laser focus on education, training, investment and jobs. These aren’t just warm words. All the evidence supports the case – successful societies invest in their children and young people, producing lifelong, intergenerational benefits for health, education and the economy.

As part of my foundation’s work, we established the Now Generation Network (NGN), a coalition of young and mid-career Africans committed to advancing the continent’s development agenda. Each year, delegates gather (virtually in 2021) during the Ibrahim Governance Weekend to hear perspectives from youth and discuss concrete steps to improve outcomes.

 

Covax
Leaders need to take sound decisions, and countries like Britain need to stand with them.

Last year we surveyed delegates and uncovered some important findings. Some 84% said they thought the pandemic was the right opportunity to shift policies. Among the recommendations were changes to increase African involvement in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and technology, and to boost youth engagement.

Achieving that means getting the education curriculum and skills training right. The global economy is advancing rapidly, and the skills needed to find work are changing rapidly with it. That means teaching digital and IT skills at a younger age, science and technology as core parts of the curriculum, and courses for youth to retrain in critical areas so they don’t miss out on opportunities that the digital and renewables sectors are offering. Building schools is one thing, but we must have clearer links between what is taught and what businesses need.

Yet education is just one plank. Alongside it there must be investment, the type that creates jobs and builds stronger societies, not the type that relies on foreign capital to extract mineral wealth. When I think of investment, I think of solid, reliable and productive infrastructure: transport networks, power grids, renewable energy projects and digital infrastructure that provides the backbone for future growth.

Investment is growing in Africa – from governments, public and private corporations, private equity funds and financial institutions – but it still tends to be short-term and hit hard by sudden changes in sentiment or commodity prices. Not all investors are equal. Some have solely their own national or corporate interests in mind. When a change of mind happens, it can shatter in weeks gains that have been achieved over a decade. The pandemic hasn’t made those calculations easier.

There are, however, signs of a shift. Major global economies recognise the value and importance of closer ties with the continent. They don’t just look to Africa’s mineral resources. They see markets like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana or Kenya, with tens or hundreds of millions of citizens, bright minds and dynamic ideas. They want to invest for the long term in infrastructure and industrial development, and they think about future consumers, too. This is critical to strengthening trade between Africa and the rest of the world, but we must also build on the success of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and strengthen trade networks within the continent, too.

This is where Global Britain and its allies need to think strategically. Investment now – long-term, solid investment that commits to the future – is the sort that will reap benefits: for Africans in terms of jobs, growth and deeper engagement in the global economy, and for investors in terms of a return, stronger trade links and better long-term relationships.

 

This is not a time for a generous donor like Britain to be scaling back – especially if it wants to live up to its Global Britain label

When I was establishing my business in Africa, I would not have been able to build the successful mobile communications operation I did without the foresight and contribution of British investment. It paid dividends for both, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

But investment is a two-way street. African governments need to create the right frameworks to attract capital. That includes the rule of law, transparency, and tax policies that work for both sides. Offering overly deep tax concessions to encourage investment is not a win-win. Good investors value the rule of law over tax breaks.

If we don’t create these opportunities for young people – to learn, to find work, to be productive – then we know where it will lead. There is a simple equation in economics: long-term growth equals population growth times productivity. Africa’s population is young and growing rapidly, but if we can’t find work for those young people and allow them to be productive, we will suffer the consequences. As I have said before: young people could be the salvation of Africa… or the timebomb that destroys it.

The 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report, ‘Africa’s Youth: Jobs or Migration?’, found that growth across Africa in the last decade was mostly job-free. That must change. An estimated 80% of young Africans who migrate, whether to other countries on the continent or abroad, do so because of a lack of work, not because of conflict or ethnic strife. They are primarily economic migrants.

Young Africans recognise these problems and tend to blame their leaders for them. Our research shows that 60% of young Africans think their governments are doing a ‘fairly bad’ or ‘very bad’ job of addressing the concerns of young people. At the Mo Ibrahim Foundation we have actively sought to develop programmes that tackle these issues. On a continent where the average age gap between leaders and the median population is 45 years, there is a deep disconnect between those deciding policy and those affected by it. Bridging that gap – reconnecting leaders with their largest constituency – is essential to ensuring the youth have a future.

 

Young citizens in Africa crave opportunities. Whether it’s in the digital economy, the green transition, resources, energy or infrastructure, Africa and Africans have a role to play. Britain shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to make it happen.

These demographic challenges are long-term, but that doesn’t mean tackling them can be put off. Good governance also means acting promptly.

I said at the start that I’m an optimist, and that stands. I have no doubt Africa – at the nation-state level and collectively – can overcome these challenges. But leaders need to take sound decisions, and countries like Britain need to stand with them. Recent cuts to the UK’s aid budget are a serious concern. This is not a time for a generous donor like Britain to be scaling back – especially if it wants to live up to its Global Britain label. Yes, it’s true some aid has been wasted. Some cutbacks may have been necessary. But the latest decision – cutting aid to Africa by two-thirds, from £2.2 billion in 2020 to just £760 million this year – cuts through the bone. It does irreversible damage to the social fabric. The consequences far out-weigh the money saved for the UK.

Britain remains an important power – respected, entrepreneurial, influential. But it has competition. France has worked hard – and successfully – in recent years to build closer ties with Ghana, a former British colony. France has recently pledged a $1.5 billion bridge loan to clear Sudan’s arrears to the International Monetary Fund. The EU collectively is engaged, and China has ramped up its presence over more than a decade. In West, East and Southern Africa, Britain must work through its past and build new relationships, not rest on historical ties.  Policymakers must keep in mind that a more prosperous Africa is good for Britain, too. As it stands, Africa accounts for just 2.5% of the UK’s trade, a smaller proportion than for France or the United States.

The pandemic is a crisis for Africa, as it is for the world. But like every challenge it presents opportunities. With the right decision-making – by leaders on the continent and partners like Britain – the ground can be laid to strengthen education, investment, jobs and trade. When you look at the youth and dynamism in economies like Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, to name a few, only a fool would write them off. Young citizens in Africa crave opportunities. They look to countries like Britain as an example of what can be achieved. Whether it’s in the digital economy, the green transition, resources, energy or infrastructure, Africa and Africans have a role to play. Britain shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to make it happen.

Please note that the views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF UK.

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