This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.
The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected developed and developing countries alike, despite vast disparities in initial response capacities. Global leaders were especially concerned about the disease’s potential implications for Africa, given the continent’s lack of financial and medical resources, weak health-care systems, fragile economies, and vulnerable populations.
But preparation and cooperation among African leaders and African Union agencies, particularly the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have resulted in many successes—including increased testing capacity, resource mobilization, and coordinated policies to prevent and contain the coronavirus’s spread and promote economic recovery.
Despite these successes, Africa is still facing significant challenges. These include a continued rise in COVID-19 cases, a need for greater testing capacity and improved health infrastructure, difficulties acquiring medical and food supplies, weak social-welfare systems that are struggling to support vulnerable populations during the economic crisis, and high government debt coupled with a need for increased spending.
Although African countries are capable of continuing their progress on the long road to recovery, external support would greatly bolster their efforts. Aside from humanitarian principles and solidarity, a strong and rapid African recovery is in the world’s interest. As long as the virus is unchecked in some regions, no part of the world can be safe from it. Moreover, if COVID-19 further weakens fragile African states or causes health or economic disasters on the continent, a migration crisis or increased threats to international security could ensue.
We therefore propose six ways the world can cooperate with Africa to improve the continent’s crisis response, accelerate its economic recovery, and build momentum for its post-pandemic development.
Although African countries are capable of continuing their progress on the long road to recovery, external support would greatly bolster their efforts.
First, external partners can provide sufficient resources and investment to enable effective COVID-19 responses and inclusive post-pandemic economic recoveries. Although multilateral and bilateral partners have already provided some financial support in the form of debt relief, loans, and grants, African governments need much more. Some estimate the continent’s pandemic-response funding gap at about $100 billion annually over the next three years. Given Africa’s health-care and economic vulnerabilities, additional financial support and debt relief are critical.
Second, partners should support and invest in the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is one of Africa’s best economic-recovery plans. The AfCFTA aims to increase intra-African trade significantly, and thus develop regional value chains, local manufacturing, and sourcing of intermediate and final goods. By reducing the continent’s vulnerability to external shocks through decreased dependence on non-African trade, the agreement will foster economic diversification and resilience, thereby promoting Africa’s integration and assisting its recovery. In addition to backing and investing in the AfCFTA, partners can provide expertise regarding trade regulations and manufacturing capacity.
Supporting private-sector growth is a third way to unlock Africa’s economic potential, representing a significant opportunity—in terms of both trade and investment—that will benefit Africa and global businesses. Although both the formal sector and the large informal sector are currently struggling, owing to lockdowns and economic restrictions, private firms will be crucial to Africa’s recovery and future development. External partners can support African businesses through increased investment, including in small and medium-size enterprises that are today trying to stay afloat and pay their employees. International partners can also help to improve the business environment, for example by overseeing a mandatory regulation process.
Next, external partners can support Africa’s efforts to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and achieve a successful digital transformation. During the pandemic, technology has enabled real-time medical forecasting and modeling, better communication between leaders, and the virtual operation of businesses. But Africa’s technology infrastructure, specifically internet access, lags severely, and the continent has benefited less from digital technology than the rest of the world. Partners can help accelerate the 4IR in Africa by sharing technological innovations, collaborating in adapting them to African contexts, and providing investments that will unleash young African innovators’ technological potential and enable existing innovations to be scaled up.
Fifth, the world can help to ensure that no African is left behind, including through job creation, skill-building, social protection, and gender equality. Vulnerable groups such as those living in urban slums or rural areas, youth, women, and the poorest families need extra government support, but social-welfare systems are weak, especially in fragile states. External partners should therefore give special consideration to assisting the most-affected countries and communities by channeling resources toward these populations, instead of giving unconditional aid to governments, and by collaborating with African leaders to create innovative policies that benefit these groups.
The final priority is to help Africa address its fragilities and bridge the gaps between policy goals and outcomes, including through evidence-based policy research. Ineffective institutions, corruption, and a lack of accountability can undermine even perfect policies. Partners can monitor projects or provide experts to assist in implementation, and can promote good governance through measures and indicators such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, or the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. Research institutes and think tanks such as the Brookings Institution are playing an important role in this effort.
Each of these six proposals can help Africa to combat and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are also critical for realizing the continent’s potential and accelerating its future development. By collaborating with external partners to secure additional resources, develop new initiatives, and invest in key sectors, African countries can mitigate the virus’s immediate impact and hasten economic recovery while building resilient systems for long-term growth and success.