Navigating the gray scale - Abdoulaye Mar Dieye

Mar 18, 2015

By Abdoulaye Mar Dieye

The recent news out of Africa offers a mix of optimism and gloom, defying simple theories that the continent is either rising or hopeless. What is missing in either of these narratives is the admission that development involves a process of ebb and flow, full of progress and setbacks.

On that gray scale, economic growth can lead to increased levels of inequality, and even co-exist with political instability and conflict. When this reality is taken into account, the question becomes not whether a country is growing, but how to make the transition from economic growth to a situation of shared prosperity and stability.

Lately, headlines have been dominated by the alarming rise of Boko Haram, on-going insecurity in Mali, the Ebola epidemic in west Africa and the conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. If one judged by these trends alone, Africa would appear to be desperately poor, vulnerable and prone to conflict.

There is another side of this story that is often less heralded in the headlines. Africa continues to be the world’s second-fastest growing region behind Asia - growing by more than 5 percent over the last decade - and is likely to stay in those top ranks for years to come. The continent’s booming middle class now includes 350 million people, representing a third of its population, and its vast natural resources will continue to attract foreign investors from around the world. Africa is also young, technology-savvy and home to a new generations of entrepreneurs.

Despite this progress, considerable challenges remain. Breakthroughs are possible, and they can lead to marked improvements in the lives of ordinary women and men.

Take Mauritius. The island nation has transformed itself from a poor sugar producer into a diversified, modern economy that exports textiles and excels at providing international financial services to the rest of the world. Per capita income has increased tenfold since 1970 to nearly $7,000, the country’s pension and social security systems are universal and functioning, and human development indicators top regional statistics.

Botswana is another example, which enjoyed four decades of economic growth – underpinned by the production and sale of diamonds – and is now an upper middle-income country. Botswana has implemented prudent policies to manage its wealth, investing mineral proceeds to boost social development, including a quarter of its budget on an education system that happens to be one of the best in Africa.

Ethiopia is another example. Over the past three decades, the country became one of Africa’s fastest-growing, non-energy economies and its exports have diversified to include leather goods, agricultural products and textiles. The government is investing massively to transform its agriculture, climate-proof the economy and eliminate child mortality.

These examples have in common four success factors which heads of state, and representatives from African nations and major Asian and Latin American economies will examine at the International Conference on the Emergence of Africa. The event is organised by the Government of Côte d’Ivoire and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in association with the World Bank and the African Development  Bank (AfDB).

First, there needs to be vision, leadership and political commitment to steer development in the right direction - sometimes against entrenched interests. The state has a key role to play in helping specific industries to flourish, setting the right business environment and making investments in social services and vital infrastructure such as roads and electricity.

In fact, as many countries in Africa achieve Middle Income Country (MIC) status, governments will be required to mobilize the necessary resources to make up for inevitable losses in aid. That in itself will take a full dose of creativity and innovation.

Second, it takes a strong economy to sustain large investments in human development over time. The world’s most successful emerging economies  including countries such as China, Brazil and South Africa - have pursued aggressive industrialisation policies and increased their integration with the world economy while achieving higher levels of technological sophistication, and training their workforces in the process. With revolutionary advances in cellphone technology, medical research and open data, Africa has a huge opportunity to leapfrog and make that happen.

Third, people and especially young women and men,  need to drive the development process. By 2050, the region’s population will swell by an estimated 200 million. If the graduates of today are already having trouble finding a job or feel disempowered politically, then the problem is likely to become much more serious over time. At its most serious, disenfranchisement can increase risks of violence, terrorism and political instability. Investing in people does not only mean creating social safety nets. It also requires us to listen to their views, let their creativity flourish and build the foundations of a functioning democratic state.

The story of Africa’s success is like the backside of a tapestry: seemingly knotted, twisted and chaotic. But when the tapestry is reversed, all of a sudden its rich colors and textures come together as a coherent whole. If the continent’s leaders make the right choices today, they will be remembered tomorrow for creating an Africa that projects confidence, unity and well-being.

Abdoulaye Mar Dieye is director of the regional bureau for Africa at UNDP

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