In the bullish environment at last week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in Addis Ababa, the launch of the Africa Progress Panel report stood out as an island of balanced reflection and cautious optimism.
Chaired by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Africa Progress Panel (APP) includes leaders from government, business and civil society. This year’s report, focused on jobs, justice and equity. The panel takes a long, hard look at Africa’s recent record on economic growth, democracy and governance. It provides a hefty dose of good news. More than any other region, Africa’s economies have demonstrated great resilience in withstanding the worst effects of the global recession. The WEF host country, Ethiopia, has been posting higher growth rates than China; Mozambique has been out-performing India. Over 70 percent of the region’s population lives in countries growing in excess of 4 percent a year.
The record on democracy and governance is also encouraging. Multi-party democracy has emerged intact from disputed elections in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. Several governments have moved to strengthen anti-corruption measures. And budget transparency is improving.
Set against the positives, the APP does not pull its punches on the downside of the progress report. Launching the report, Kofi Annan told a crowded room of journalists that African governments were failing to tackle what he described as “ethically indefensible and economically inefficient” inequalities. “Disparities in basic life chances – for health, education and participation in society – are preventing millions of Africans from realizing their potential, holding back social and economic progress in the process,” Mr. Annan said.
While the talk in the WEF corridors has been all about the investment opportunities created by growth, the expansion of the middle class and commercial agriculture, the APP turns the spotlight on issues that are conspicuously absent from the wider WEF agenda. It warns that much of the economic growth of the past decade has been jobless, raising the specter of rising youth unemployment. The report cautions that restricted access to education and low levels of learning achievement are reinforcing social disparities and hampering employment creation. And, citing data from research at Brookings, it says that claims made about the growth of an African middle class have been exaggerated.
Taking up a theme that NGOs like Oxfam have addressed, the report also urges African governments to draw a sharper distinction between productive foreign investment in agriculture and what Mr. Annan and his co-panelist and celebrity activist, Bob Geldof, described as speculative land grabs. The report warns that failure to prioritize smallholder agriculture will leave millions of Africans trapped in a cycle of poverty and food insecurity.
Looking ahead, the report calls for a renewed focus on equity and jobs creation, with education placed at the center of national strategies, referencing the Center for Universal Education’s call for African governments to strengthen the quality of education as part of the wider Global Compact on Learning. The panel also called on the international community to create an independent multilateral fund to support education— an approach that he said would draw on the lessons of the global health fund.