Out of Africa: Ebola won’t stop Africa’s progress

Anver Versi

Inbox: Out of Africa

Ojota Lagos Nigeria

If nothing else, the Ebola crisis in three West African countries has rudely interrupted the generally positive narrative of Africa’s economic growth and brought us back down to Earth with a bump.

It should be said from the outset that neither the horrific illness itself nor the economic repercussions flowing from it are likely to affect growth in the rest of Africa. There may be some nervousness from foreigners about visiting West Africa as a whole for a little while, but the main impact of the disease is being felt in the three countries involved: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Ironically, all three countries, in particular Sierra Leone and Liberia, had been achieving record growth figures before this calamity struck. It is now clear that the disease became out of control because these countries, which are all rebuilding their fragile economies after emerging from violent conflicts, just did not have the capacity to contain the illness. Nigeria, on the other hand, with far greater resources and better organisation at its disposal, was able to stop Ebola in its tracks.

What this suggests is that while the focus has been on African growth figures, we seem to have taken our eye off the real objective of growth – the much longed for transformation of Africa into a thriving, competitive, robust and prosperous continent.

The emergence and rapid spread of Ebola has reminded us that growth in itself does not necessarily bring about transformation – and that without transformation, there is no permanent change. Ebola and other such plagues will eventually be driven out of their current lairs, but they will continue to haunt the thresholds of vulnerable African countries. Ridding ourselves of such calamities once and for all calls for a complete transformation of attitudes, outlooks and ways of doing things.

But is Africa transforming? Is Africa’s rise real? This was the question posed by the London-based Royal Africa Society (RAS) during one of its recent discussion breakfasts.

Appropriately enough, it was directed at K. Y. Amoako, the president of the
Africa Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET). Amoako has been with the World Bank, headed the UN Economic Commission for Africa, helped set up the New Partnership for African Development (part of the African Union) and was a
member of several forums, including the Commission for Africa, before founding ACET. So if anybody has the inside track on where Africa is heading, it is most likely going to be Amoako.

He recalled that he had spoken about the hurdles that needed to be overcome if Africa is to fulfil its promise at the British Prime Minister’s residence in London as part of the Millennium Lecture series in 2001. “Now, here I am again,” he told his RAS audience, “still talking about African development. But my goodness, how times have changed. What a difference a decade makes! We are still talking about African development, but the context is remarkably different.”

He said that, after years of doom and gloom, the ‘Africa rising’ story is “a welcome narrative. I’m not here to say it is
incorrect, but I am going to tell you that it is incomplete”.

If Africa’s recent gains are to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable for the next 20 years, he said, “much less the next 50, then we face a fundamental challenge to the continent’s prevailing economic structures – a challenge to modernise and diversify that is too often overlooked in today’s dialogue. That is why the answer to today’s question – is Africa rising? – comes with conditions. For Africa to truly rise, it must first transform. And for that reason, friends and colleagues, a new narrative is needed.”

Indeed. It is good to know that ACET and many other Africa-oriented think-tanks are seriously writing the new narrative. But for the narrative to take root and flower, as K. Y. Amoako stresses, the transformation message will have to turn into a mass movement – only large-scale transformation will change the entire continent.

Nigeria’s victory against Ebola shows what can be done with a change of attitude; the failure of the other three West African countries shows what can happen if change does not come about fast enough.

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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