Africa Should Be FREE to Advance
The days are long gone when Africa was thought of as a “dark continent”, of which not much was known and even less expected. In fact, a mere few years ago Africa was seen as the “continent of the future”, with eleven of the twenty fastest growing economies in the world. Africa was booming.
There are still many reasons to be optimistic about this vast continent, even if growth rates have slackened considerably since then, violence within states has been on the rise, and democratic developments have taken a downward turn, as has protection of human rights - such as freedom of speech. So why the optimism? This stems, in part, from the vast natural resources, but mainly from its human resources. Africa is a young continent, the median age being 19.5 (overall in the developing world it is 24.3 years, and in the developed world 37.4). This can be turned into a tremendous advantage. In many African countries, especially in big cities such as Nairobi, Dakar, Kigali and Addis Ababa, young people show an unparalleled dynamism, with startups mushrooming in a flurry of economic activity. There is a creativity that is an example to the rest of the world.
And yet, as a continent the advance seems to stall. Why is this?
Naturally, on a continent as vast and diverse as Africa, there are many different reasons. However, there seems to be a common resistance to structural change that can be observed across the continent. Is this related to the age of its leaders? Although the average African citizen is under 20 years old, the average age of its leaders is 65. Is the immobility of economic structures and the preservation of vested local and foreign interests holding Africa back? African economies are still dominated by huge state companies, and other large, inflexible industries, that leave little space for small and medium size enterprises to develop. In addition, many countries have a staggering amount of red tape that appears almost purposefully designed to discourage private economic initiatives. Moreover, there are depressing levels of corruption in a great many countries, with the exception perhaps of places like Botswana and Mauritius. One in five Africans admit to having had to pay a bribe to access a service in the past year.
If Africa wants to be free to advance, it must free itself from the social and political stultification that hampers new and creative initiatives. This is far from impossible.
Three areas spring to mind before any others:
First, the continent should embrace new technologies. Whether it is in communication, in energy generation and distribution, in creating smart cities or in fighting climate change, Africa can turn its current technological lag into its advantage by leapfrogging the developed world. Whether this will easily happen when the average African leader is twice the age of the President of France, and political structures are notoriously opaque and elitist, is perhaps questionable. On the other hand, all it requires is for one governing party to show the courage to innovate, and others will follow suit soon enough. Who will be first?
The second important item is to encourage small, new economic initiatives, particularly startups. There are plenty of them, but they often get tangled in a maze of rules and regulations. What is needed here is a clean sweep. Not new rules, but fewer rules, and a much better legal protection of private property. In itself, this does not have to cost the state a penny. Naturally, it would be even better if this was accompanied by a flourishing education system. The continent needs better primary and secondary education -especially of girls (whose economic assets are far too often wasted by forcing them into early motherhood) - as well as widespread internship programmes. More space for academic excellence would go a long way to solving many economic and social ills. Implementing this is not impossible – take the plans developed in The Economist for private education that cost as little as $1 per week.
And finally, most importantly, a drive is needed for better governance. It is encouraging that South Africa’s pathetic attempt to lead African countries out of the International Criminal Court failed miserably. But on the whole a strengthening of independent institutions such as courts and the ombudsman is needed. Local autonomy and real parliamentary oversight are also desperately called for since they are indispensable for government stability and credibility. That is the thing: citizen involvement and checks and balances in governance create more social security, not less.
Africa has the true potential to become a beacon of dynamism and modernity. It is what the younger generations yearn for. But to get there, it needs to free itself from stagnation and rigidity. Only then will it be free to advance.