Published: March 11 2005 Copyright The Financial Times
The release of the Africa Commission report today is an important landmark in the battle to help Africa realise its potential and finally hold its own as an equal partner in the world. It is a significant advance on all the work that has been done, especially since the 1980s, to support development on the African continent.
The report from the international body established by Tony Blair, the prime minister, to promote development on the continent is, of course, not the first such initiative. There have been many other reports, many other plans, many other programmes, all seeking to turn Africa round and end the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment. Some might even say, given the less than impressive results of past efforts, that this is one report too many. Africa has been too long in the headlines for bad news and “compassion fatigue” is widespread.
But the commission’s report rightly recognises the good news emerging from the continent. Many countries are tackling corruption and focusing on good governance. More than 23 countries are willing for their performance to be assessed through the Africa Peer Review Mechanism established by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).
The point must be made – and this is why the release of this report is so important – that Africa is changing and the world cannot afford to give up on the continent. The political, economic and security consequences of doing so would simply be too great. In this sense, the Africa Commission’s report has symbolic importance. It provides eloquent evidence that the world has not abandoned Africa. The British government deserves to be complimented for initiating this comprehensive blueprint for Africa’s development.
The report’s substance also has a lot to recommend it. It not only builds on previous efforts, but also complements the African Union and Nepad frame works for achieving Africa’s development. It also lays out very specific steps to realise those goals. Although it echoes some previous reports, the specific areas of action that it emphasises are significantly different. Two in particular are worthy of note.
First, there is the importance of robust infrastructure for Africa’s development. A recent study by the World Economic Forum confirmed that poor and inadequate infrastructure is the most critical disincentive to development in Africa – even more of a deterrent than corruption and bureaucracy. The Africa Commission report rightly emphasises the fact that a pervasive lack of functioning rail networks, roads (especially link-roads to transport agricultural products from the hinterland), water for domestic and agricultural use, electricity and communication facilities has seriously hobbled Africa’s progress. If Africa is to develop, the communications challenge must be tackled. Improving infrastructure also means improving regional road and rail networks to connect small markets within the continent. That is the best way to maximise the long-standing economic links that join communities and nations to encourage trade between and within countries.
The second noteworthy area of emphasis in the report is debt relief. The Africa Commission’s report is significant because it makes a strong and unambiguous link between debt relief and the resources needed to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. This is a clear departure from the hypocritical position of many western nations, which prefer to deal with the two issues as if they were mutually exclusive. These nations express their determination to help African countries halve poverty by 2015 even as they insist that these countries service their debts fully. This is simply not feasible.
The truth is that for many African nations facing serious economic and other challenges debt cancellation or relief is not a luxury or an alternative but a necessity. A country such as Nigeria, in spite of higher oil prices, needs significant additional revenues to meet the huge infrastructural deficit that accumulated during the military years. This, of course, is critical to meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The vast majority of African nations are in the same position as Nigeria – or worse.
By linking debt cancellation to aid and development, the Africa Commission’s report rightly tries to do away with this hypocrisy. Millions of suffering Africans expect these clear-headed analyses of the challenges facing Africa to be followed by something else – something that failed to materialise after the publication of previous reports: timely and consistent implementation.
The writer is Nigeria’s finance minister