Africa’s Rising. Really

Although much still remains to be done, the African continent has come a long way and needs all her people, wherever they are, in order to make progress, says Frances Mensah Williams.

Ms. Frances Mensah Williams

Anyone who’s attended an Africa-related conference will be familiar with the much used PowerPoint slide showing the front page of The Economist from May 2000 that declared Africa to be ‘The Hopeless Continent’.  This slide is usually followed by one showing the cover of The Economist’s December 2011 issue with the caption ‘Africa Rising’.

In the feature story within that issue, the publication predicted a much more hopeful Africa.  Despite ongoing governance and corruption issues, it said: “Africa is at last getting a taste of peace and decent government”.

Certainly, in 2000, the Economist would never have predicted the direction, barely a decade later, in which the continent is now moving. With many African countries reforming their economies, the prospects for growth continue to look positive.  

With war and disease on the decline and commodity prices on the rise, as well as the crucial factors of Chinese investment and mobile technology, seven out of 10 of the fastest-growing economies from 2011 to 2015 are projected to be in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, for most of the past decade, Africa south of the Sahara has grown faster than Asia.

In its feature article ‘Africa Rising’, the Economist highlights how the continent’s prospects have changed.

“Africa now has a fast-growing middle class: according to Standard Bank, around 60m Africans have an income of $3,000 a year, and 100m will in 2015. The rate of foreign investment has soared around tenfold in the past decade. China’s arrival has improved Africa’s infrastructure and boosted its manufacturing sector. Other non-Western countries, from Brazil and Turkey to Malaysia and India, are following its lead. Africa could break into the global market for light manufacturing and services such as call centres. Cross-border commerce, long suppressed by political rivalry, is growing, as tariffs fall and barriers to trade are dismantled.”

Governance: Entitlement vs. Accountability

It would be wrong to say that the culture of entitlement by those whose ‘party’ has taken political power has been eradicated. The mindset, described by Michela Wrong in her book about Kenya, ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’, will not disappear overnight.  After all, politics has been the route of self-enrichment in Africa for many years now, sustained by enormous injections of foreign aid and unenforced demands for improved governance.

But a vigilant media and an increasingly impatient electorate are blunting the extent to which this now happens. And, as African economies diversify and grow, their dependency on aid to support their budgets will reduce and their accountability to their own people will rise correspondingly. What we see now, from the more traditional media such as radio and television to the blogs and tweets of social media is that Africans are finding avenues to be increasingly more vocal, and are showing greater assertiveness in demanding their right to be heard.  The elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone towards the end of 2012 were a clear indication of how vigilant ordinary citizens have become when it comes to safeguarding their hard-won democracy.

Africans in the Diaspora

In all this, what role can Africa’s diaspora play? In my view, it falls to us to remain involved, engaged and vocal.  It is our responsibility to influence the debate from where we live and to make sure that the millions of dollars, pounds, euros, etc. sent back home in the form of remittances make us not only financially, but emotionally, engaged in Africa’s success.  Some countries offer the right to vote to non-resident citizens, while others actively court the investment – and subsequent influence – their Diaspora populations can bring.

The truth is that Africa won’t change because the aid donors say so.  They’ve had decades to try that route and it patently didn’t work. Over US$1 trillion of development aid has been pumped into Africa over the past few decades.  It did not alleviate the systems that created and perpetuated poverty, and has been castigated by many economists for leaving Africa’s people poorer and worse off as a result.

The African continent faces many challenges.  Translating economic growth into jobs, addressing income inequality, finding solutions to youth unemployment, improving access to and the quality of education, addressing health and sanitation issues and building and replacing infrastructure are urgent needs that must be addressed by the continent’s leaders.

But, however benignly couched, the financial investment into Africa, whether from the East or the West will not be the real game changer. Africa will change only when Africans not only demand transformation, but hold their elected representatives accountable for delivering that change.  When all’s said and done, it is down to us as Africans, whether we live within or outside the continent, to decide what we want, determine our targets and focus on making it happen.

Who Decides?

Africa is rising.  But its trajectory will continue upward only when we get beyond the best governments that foreign aid can buy.  It will continue to rise only when we stop looking to Band Aid and its successors as first aid for our misfortunes.  It is then that we will see the change and the governments that we, the people of, and from, Africa, deserve.  

During the recent political elections in Ghana, an oft-repeated phrase was ‘Ghana Decides’.  As Africans, no matter where we live, we all have a contribution to make to help bring a vision for a prosperous Africa to fruition. For all of us, over 2013 and in the coming years, the motto needs to be ‘Africa Decides’.

Frances Mensah Williams is Editor of ReConnect Africa.com (www.reconnectafrica.com) and author of ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’. Available online from www.everyday-heroes.co.uk and on order through booksellers.