National Director’s Inaugural Address: Taking Africa Seriously From Within and Without

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

This is an abridged version of the 20 October 2005 inaugural speech by Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, the new national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Some weeks ago I spent several hours in a café in meetings. On my way out, the cashier asked: ‘So, did you do good business here today ma’am?’

I said yes and she asked about what products I sold. As head of a public policy research institute, I momentarily struggled to find an answer. ‘Well, I don’t really sell products. I sell intellectual products.’

‘Oh, like intellectual property rights? So what exactly do you do?’

I replied a little tongue-in-cheek: ‘I look at how we can solve Africa’s problems.’

‘Oh, that’s easy ma’am’, came the reply, ‘Just get rid of all the governments.’

I am not advocating anarchy. But the point made by the cashier reflects an ordinary person’s assessment of an unfortunate reality: In many cases in the past, African governments have been a hindrance rather than an agent of development.

On the world stage, we demand that the continent be taken seriously and our diplomats frequently complain that the world sees a distorted image of Africa as a continent only of problems. Before we can hope to engineer a change in perceptions in the world, we as Africans need to take ourselves seriously. And that requires an open and frank self-assessment.

What this means is we do not externalise the causes of our problems and avoid perceiving ourselves as victims of fate. That we are ultimately responsible for our fates – not only as leaders but equally importantly as citizens. That we should hold African lives and quality of life as dear as those of any other. That our discourse should be determined by common values and principles – based on global benchmarks – and not sensitivities about labels and political correctness.

There has been a significant shift in the African discourse since the 1990s, and more so in the past five or six years. In building a strategy for Africa’s future, three trends deserve mention.

Progressive, visionary change

Firstly, 20 years ago there would have been no African peacekeepers in Darfur under African auspices; there would have been no denouncement of unconstitutional changes of power; there would have been no discussion about ‘good governance’ and that the rights of people should be more important than those of states. Much of this change has been brought about by progressive and visionary leaders. And while it has picked up substantial momentum, sustaining it and applying it uniformly is always going to be difficult because of resistance from entrenched interests and elites.

Secondly, the renewed interest in the continent from the North, primarily as a result of the successful marketing of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. But Nepad’s brilliant marketing may well be its biggest undoing if expectations created do not start being realised.

Thirdly, there is also a recognition that the world around us is changing fast. New powers are emerging, with new commercial interests, new challenges and competitors, and new political alignments. The power balances are shifting; these may not be obvious yet, but power relations globally will be quite different over the next decade from those we’ve grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War. Key among those are the rise of China and India.

How should Africa maximise the opportunities and minimise the threats that these developments present?

Taking Africa seriously from within necessitates a clearer sense of accountability of African leadership for the reform process to their people. Five years into Nepad, African leaders need to make the meaning and benefits of Nepad more evident to the populace. Too often it seems like these reforms are a discussion between the African political elite and the G8. Benefits can be made more tangible by identifying key priorities that should be addressed in each state and setting about doing that in a focused way because the point about the Nepad vision is that ultimate actualisation rests at the national level.

It is in this regard that the African peer review process is one of the most tangible and potentially most effective tools developed. It is a mechanism which hopes to address some of the important challenges facing African states and their citizens – those of leadership accountable to the people, sound policies, which have both the intention and the outcome of eradicating poverty and improving the lives of citizens, protecting human rights and eliminating government by diktat.

This year marked the completion of the first APRM reports on Ghana and Rwanda. Other assessments are proceeding apace and South Africa is also beginning the process.

The biggest test of the efficacy of the APRM process will, however, be the extent to which African leadership is bold enough to publish the full reports conducted on each of the countries; the degree to which these reports are frank and forthright in their assessment; and what plans of action emanate from them and how each government sets about addressing the shortcomings – because that is what APRM is about.

If citizens and leaders are serious about moving their countries they will not let the opportunity of APRM slip by. Both the governors and the governed are at a crossroads between taking a path which places inordinate emphasis on aid as Africa’s salvation or one that is based on an internally-generated dynamic, of which aid may be a part, but only a part. This means Africa must recognise that the responsibility for development and good governance is rooted firmly in the leadership and society of Africa. Leaders should be trying to identify interventions that are within our powers and capabilities that will make some difference to poverty and suffering, given the resources we already have.

Early assessments of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) tell us that it is likely that most of Africa will miss the deadline of 2015. MDGs go to the heart of governments’ abilities to deliver improvements on the socio-economic level. Their significance lies not only in the externally-imposed ‘deadline’, although this has helped to generate the dynamic.

We should also be thinking beyond the MDGs because these are not an end in themselves. Their achievement presupposes good infrastructure and good governance, and the skills to implement and maintain both. In many ways we need to aim higher than the MDG minimums. For example, a population where most only have primary education is not going to prepare you for development in the 21st century.

In the past 50-60 years about $2 trillion has been spent on development worldwide. Roughly half of that went to Africa. There is agreement that over this period it has accomplished little.

There are many to blame – the recipient governments; the institutions providing aid; Cold War politics, which saw aid driven by geopolitical imperatives rather than the degree to which it was being used to help development; and the fact that development is a complex and multifaceted issue.

Time for smarter aid allocations

But I am not convinced that throwing more aid, more quickly, over a shorter timeframe at Africa will help any more, given some of the reasons for its inefficacy before. Aid should be a spur for creating and sustaining productive capacity, not a means of entrenching the privileges of the elite. At this juncture we should say that aid allocations don’t have to be greater, they have to be smarter.

Directing more aid to the good performers – where it can make a difference because they have better infrastructure and capacity – is a sine qua non.

There also has to be recognition that we can’t fix everything and shouldn’t try to fix everything that is fixable all at one time. So where can money be spent most effectively? Where can we work to create pockets of excellence? If these aid institutions were private companies, they may very well have been more meticulous in how they monitored efficacy and the geography of their investment. Aid has measured performance by the amount spent rather than whether it actually brought about the desired result. Having said this, we should engage more actively in these debates with donors and we should not be embarrassed about advocating a differentiated approach in Africa. All states are not equal in actual political and economic power or in capability and willingness to undertake difficult policy choices.

Sub-Saharan Africa has not done badly in the past few years. Non-oil producing countries are expecting average growth of about 4.5% in 2005, similar to 2004. The number of countries achieving growth in excess of 5% is expected to increase. Real GDP growth in SSA is projected to improve to 5.3% in 2006. Yet, growth in SSA remains below the levels observed in other developing country regions and, as we know, is still insufficient for most countries to achieve the income-poverty MDG. Only Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone will grow by more than 7% in 2005.

Despite this good growth, sub-Saharan Africa still makes up only about 2% of world trade and its total economy is 1.3% of the global total.

While many countries in Africa are making good progress, this is not happening nearly as quickly as in the rest of the world. The 21st century will be Asia’s. Whereas South Korea lagged Ghana in GDP per capita in the late 1950s, it is now a member of the developed countries club, the OECD.

The past few years have brought to the fore a new scramble for Africa over resources, often led by China’s voracious appetite for raw materials. To ensure that Africa has a viable economy when those resources eventually dwindle, Africa must experiment in new approaches to husbanding revenue from oil companies so that it is spent on developmental matters and the communities. The Chad pipeline for example, is a positive case. We also need to apply our mind to how resource-based economies can channel export-generated income from huge Chinese demand into domestic development. And we must develop and implement proper, industrial policies in areas where we can be competitive.

Ingredients of success

Africa’s ability to profit from increased offers of aid and higher demand for resources will depend on several key variables.

Leadership: Political leadership includes encouraging innovation, which is about skills, education and strategies based on finding our niche markets and sectors to develop industrialisation/beneficiation capacity. But it necessitates being able to think ahead and being proactive in anticipating change.

Seeking to insulate Africa from globalisation is not a long-term sustainable option. At the same time, open economies, without skilled management of policies and their implementation, do not ensure prosperity for all citizens. That requires both a political leadership that anticipates the threats and opportunities and a capable state that intervenes effectively in areas where markets may not be the best vehicles for delivery.

We also need a mind-set change away from the politics of ‘Brotherhood’ and the ‘lowest common denominator’, which have long characterised African politics and have provided protection for ‘rogue’ leaders.

It is equally important to have good leaders in the many spheres of civil society. Around the continent civil society is becoming more vocal and demanding that governments deliver on promises. Civil society played an important role on the third term issue in Zambia; it has been strong in mobilising on HIV/Aids in South Africa, and more recently on municipal service delivery; one can argue that the crackdown in Zimbabwe since 2000 was a result of the successes of the civic movement in opposing Mugabe. But principled causes without good leaders will not win wars.

Ownership of successes and failures: In many ways it is about re-asserting control over our own destiny. Perhaps the analogy of a patient going to a therapist may be a good one here. He may have had a crummy upbringing, but nobody’s going to live his life for him. Let not our epitaph be: ‘Here lies a victim of his past.’

Building more capable state institutions: Progress has been made in improving state institutions, whether it is in fighting corruption or in improving accounting systems and transparency, but it is far from complete. When the state is largely absent, incapable or unwilling, there emerges the ‘social justice’ deficit that so many countries face. A critical problem that some African states face is their inability to exert power over their entire territory.

Adopting pragmatic policies: Not ones driven by ideological agendas, which avoid ‘grey areas’ and elevate one ideology (whether that is rampant free-marketeering, or state-centric socialism) to ‘sacredness’, as Ernest Gellner puts it.

Harnessing partnerships with the private sector: And dispelling the predisposition to question the profit motive of companies. Africa, after all, is not the world’s single largest market with ever growing potential. It is small, fragmented and with little buying power. Creating hurdles for investors or onerous conditionalities may not dissuade some, but it makes it more difficult to attract others. The fact is that Africa needs foreign investment, simply because its saving ratios are so low, but is also needs to develop the domestic private sector more.

Developing infrastructure: Attempts at macro-economic stabilisation in African countries in the 1980s and 1990s were made in some cases at the expense of investment in long-term capital expenditure, especially in the area of infrastructure, which is vital for realising higher rates of economic growth and development. For example, the World Bank estimated in 1995 that some $1.5 billion a year was required for a decade to restore the existing road network to an appropriate level.

Improving the position of women: Paul Wolfowitz, the new president of the World Bank, said in a recent interview with the Financial Times: ‘It seems … an almost arithmetic equation that if half of the population is held back, then your development is going to be held back.’

I would like to end with a quote from an African poet of Hellenic background, Constantine Cavafy. His poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, talks about a city and its inhabitants, who prepare themselves for a big event – the advent of the barbarians. Everything is geared up towards their arrival.

Why suddenly should all this uneasiness begin,
And this confusion?
(How grave now have all faces become!)
Why are all streets and squares so quickly emptying now, and why is everyone returning home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen,
and the barbarians have not come.
And a few men who have returned
from the frontiers tell us that there are
no barbarians anymore.
And now, what’s to become of us without barbarians?
These people were some sort of a solution.

Africa needs to be prepared to take its own future in its hands. We have heard many promises in the past, of more aid and a greater focus on Africa.

Our challenges will not be overcome through external assistance only. We have leaders in Africa who have recognised this. Some of our partners in the North are serious about helping Africa. But if we take ourselves seriously we need to start changing what we can today.