Africa at large: Time for continent to insist on defining its own future (opinion)

There is very little to show for the $300bn in aid that has apparently been disbursed to the African continent since 1970. Economic growth and human development in Africa still lag behind the rest of the world. In part, this is because past aid flows were often spent to suit the geostrategic interests of the givers. Today, Africa represents less than 2% of world trade. While Asia and Latin America have become richer through integration with the global economy, Africa has yet to take advantage of globalisation.

Fresh promises of doubling aid to Africa to $50bn a year are to be welcomed, but this money will not suffice in transforming our continent. To assess whether aid can be a more effective tool of development, we first have to understand why it is that Africa has fallen behind. Four reasons stand out.
The first is bad leadership, giving way to personalised governance and weak public institutions, often led to costly conflict in Africa. The resulting insecurity made productive investment all but impossible. Moreover, bad leadership in one country often infected entire regions. Thankfully, since the early 1990s, democratic governance has made steady gains throughout Africa.

The second was a failure to invest in people — a trend that Africa is slowly reversing. We cannot expect to develop if we disqualify half of our population — women — from full and equal participation in national endeavours. That is why in Rwanda we have been reforming our laws and institutions to bring women into the mainstream of socioeconomic and political development. Today half of our MPs are women.
Similarly, investing in education is a precondition for Africa’s development and for accessing the global economy. We have no option but to rapidly increase the number of science and technology graduates, and do much better at retaining than in the past.

That leads us to the third reason, a lack of productivity and competitiveness. Countries get rich by adding value to commodities and selling these products. But that requires investment and Africa is still hardly the most attractive destination for such capital. Inadequate infrastructure, insecurity, lack of skilled labour and stifling government bureaucracies cause investors to put their money elsewhere. Again we in Africa are reforming these structures and systems, but we need to do more and faster.

Fourth, we have to be honest about the consequences of aid dependence. Countries that have used aid as a temporary support while domestic and foreign investment stocks are built up have achieved lasting success. Aid should strengthen the bonds between governments and their own citizens, including business communities. It should aim to build stronger domestic institutions and transfer skills to local managers and administrators. If aid weakens these relationships, systems and structures, it should be rejected. Development is about choices, and so is the acceptance of aid.

There have been recent, positive changes in the way some aid is given. For example, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) commits human and financial resources to community development in fields ranging from health care to environmental protection. The CGI’s strength is in its close alignment with national priorities, working hand in glove with African institutions. This approach stresses the effectiveness of aid as transitory support, avoiding long-term dependence.

But what really matters most for socio-economic transformation is private capital and Africa’s share. Africa receives less than 10% of the $500bn in annual private capital flows to emerging markets — five times the amount of official development assistance to all countries. How can we increase these flows to our continent? First and foremost, we must maintain security. But security is not only — or even primarily — about the work of the military or the police. Security also derives from economic growth and political inclusiveness. Security ultimately is about building inclusive political culture in which all citizens see themselves. And this has to spread regionally to instil greater confidence for those international investors viewing Africa as a whole as one big “trouble spot”.

In Africa, we must above all confront the key constraints facing our economies. In Rwanda, our priorities include addressing the high costs of electricity and transportation. But these constraints are not necessarily universal to every African economy, and they certainly do not affect all our countries equally, which is why there will never be a successful “one-size-fits-all” solution to our continent’s development challenges. The barriers that governments put in the path of entrepreneurs need to be urgently removed. Individuals and companies create wealth, not governments. This is not to say that the state should become invisible. But governments should see their roles as enablers of business, and not gatekeepers that control and hamper it.

Lastly, we must develop and communicate a vision. This does not come from one person. Rather, it must be nurtured over time in a way so that all citizens can contribute to its creation and ownership. Such a vision is not about reaching an abstract set of development targets focused on poverty alleviation. It is instead a positive and substantive strategy for growth and development. Our vision in Rwanda is to become a regional service hub for transport and communications. It is a place where energy costs are sharply reduced by the use of cutting-edge technology and realised through regional co-operation. A country where visitors can not only experience our magnificent wildlife and famous gorillas but also take a journey on our “coffee trail”, a route of plantations dotted amid spectacular mountain scenery. This is a vision where the traumatic divisions of the past are healing in the melting pot of commercial activity and burgeoning employment. It is, in every sense, a vision of “Team Rwanda”.

The developed part of the world has also to play fair in contributing to such a vision by opening their markets to African trade. Openness and the engine of economic activity behind trade are the real tools for creating wealth and defeating poverty. These actions will only bear fruit when Africa substitutes external conditionality — that is, doing what the donors tell us to do — with internal policy clarity — that is, knowing ourselves what we need to do and articulating this vision clearly to our development partners. We need to learn to “just say no” whenever donor priorities do not align with domestic priorities. We need to use aid and debt relief as a catalyst for growth. Africa must increasingly be seen on its own terms, as a continent of opportunity, and not as an object of pity and charity. With its 750-million people, half of whom are under the age of 15, Africa offers a fast-growing and dynamic market. This is our future and our promise.

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