By Samson Demissie Teffera*
A profound change has taken hold in Africa over the last decade and half. So has a change in the world’s perception of the continent. In 2000, The Economist magazine heralded Africa on its front page with a regrettable title: “The Helpless Continent.” This is the world’s premier economic newsmagazine that was established in 1843 with a mission “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” It took only a decade for ignorance to give way to intelligence. In 2011, the magazine sported a front page shouting aloud: “Africa Rising.” Two years later its front page flagged an “Aspiring Africa.”
The Economist is not alone in recognizing the social and economic transformations that have taken root in Africa. In the January 22, 2015 issue of the New York Times, David Leonhardt observed that “the continent is in the early stages of a trajectory that could mimic that of Latin America or, more ambitiously, parts of Asia… Africa has finally become part of the story.” And the story is that African economies are no longer “the world’s economic laggards.”
A 2010 research from McKinsey & Company, the prestigious global management consultancy that boasts of being a knowledge base for 80 percent of the world’s largest corporations, showed that Africa’s growth phenomenon is driven by structural changes. The key factors that have spurred Africa’s structural transformation include the vibrancy of its youth, rapidly growing business opportunities, average rate of return on investment that is higher than in any other developing region, and the rise of the African urban consumer, to name just a few.
Echoing a similar outlook, in Africa Attractiveness Survey (2011), Ernst & Young declared: “It’s Time for Africa.” Its 2015 Survey noted that “Africa’s share of global capital investment and job creation hit an all-time high in 2014. Only Asia-Pacific attracted more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) funds than Africa last year. Africa attracted more FDI funding than North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe, which historically draw significantly higher FDI flows than Africa.”
The assessments that are coming out of the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB) research facilities espouse similar sentiments, with more upbeat tone and tenor. According to the AfDB’s African Economic Outlook, apart from a rapidly growing FDI inflows, remittances to Africa are projected to reach USD 64.6 billion in 2015. This, the report noted, is six fold since 2000.
More importantly, AfDB’s report also highlighted that international aid as measured by “official development assistance (ODA) will decline in 2015 to USD 54.9 billion and is projected to diminish further.” Notable also is a paradigm shift afoot in Africa’s development discourse, away from viewing Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world with a “donor-recipient” frame of mind toward that rooted in strategic partnerships based on mutual interest.
Indeed, “Africa is on the move [and] a new Africa is emerging”, as President Obama announced in his historic speech at the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The US President noted:
“As President, I’ve worked to transform America’s relationship with Africa — so that we’re truly listening to our African friends and working together, as equal partners. I believe Africa’s rise is not just important for Africa, it’s important to the entire world. We will not be able to meet the challenges of our time — from ensuring a strong global economy to facing down violent extremism, to combating climate change, to ending hunger and extreme poverty — without the voices and contributions of one billion Africans.”
I had the privilege to attend his historic speech and the opportunity to talk about it afterward with African scholars and dignitaries. As one senior African official put it, “What a momentous speech! Where he came short was in articulating his views and cashing his unparalleled international political capital to empower Africa on international forums.”
Days before President Obama’s speech, there were widespread and impassioned discussions within the African community on this particular issue, sparked by Reverend Jesse Jackson’s open letter to President Obama. The Reverend urged his President to use his historic speech at the African Union as a platform to address the under-representation of Africa’s voice on global forums.
The Reverend made his point highlighting “Africa’s gross under-representation in the G-20, an institution whose overarching objective is to promote growth across the developed and developing world to benefit people in all countries.” His letter was grounded in facts: “Europe and North America account for 14 percent of the world population, but occupy nearly 50 percent of the seats at the G-20 table. Asia has six seats including Australia. Latin America, which accounts for eight percent of the world population, has three. By comparison, Africa, home to 16 percent of the world population, occupies only one seat (South Africa).”
The virtual exclusion of Africa from the G-20 entails exclusion from other powerful international forums, including the B-20 forum for business and the C-20 forum for civil society. The B-20 provides “links between global policymakers and business communities around the world.” Through the C-20, the civil society in the G-20 countries has “a say in the discussions shaping the global economy.”
The expectation was high that President Obama would pay heed to the Reverend’s call and make it a prominent part of his speech. His above-noted acknowledgment that the world “will not be able to meet the challenges of our time — without the voices and contributions of one billion Africans” is right on the spot. It may even be an acknowledgment of the Reverend’s open letter. Africa was hoping for more.
President Obama indeed has unparalleled international political capital. Many in Africa hope that he will use his influence to ensure that Africa is accorded fair representation in the G-20. Let us hope the Reverend’s clarion call for a historic change will not be crowded out by the sirens of the defenders of the status quo. Let us hope ,also, that the Reverend will speak louder and more often. Africa is happy to hear from him.
* Samson Demissie Teffera is an Ethiopian American, very active in youth mentoring, community leadership and works and reside in the Washington Metropolitan Area. [email protected]