In Africa, there’s never been a better time to be alive.
The last two decades have seen steady improvements to the extent that a child born in Africa today has a better chance of living longer, avoiding extreme poverty, receiving a primary school education and joining a growing economy, than ever before.
Yet not all the movement is in one direction. The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact, forcing much of Africa into recession. While the continent’s long-term outlook for growth remains positive, too often the expansion is inconsistent, fails to create jobs and delivers benefits that don’t trickle down.
There is inconsistency, too, when it comes to governance, the issue that sits at the heart of progress. Without good governance – without transparent, trustworthy and democratic leadership – social and economic gains are wasted. A good year can quickly be followed by setbacks and backsliding. That said, the last decade has broadly been a period of improvement. In 2019, a little over 60% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people were living in a country where overall governance, as measured by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, was better than in 2010.
Clearly, I am an optimist and there are good reasons to be optimistic. But we must also be realists.
While some economies in Europe and the United States are already bouncing back from the pandemic, with vaccination drives that have covered 60-70% of their adult populations, Africa is still waiting. Our leaders deserve credit for enforcing lockdowns and limiting infections, but they have struggled to get hold of vaccines. By the start of June this year, only 32 million vaccine doses had been distributed across Africa. Vaccine hoarding by richer countries is a major part of the problem, but the crisis has also revealed the current chronic shortfall in Africa’s own vaccine manufacturing capacity.
It’s too early to count the full cost of the pandemic for the continent. But this year’s Ibrahim Forum Report on COVID-19 in Africa highlights how it is only likely to deepen inequalities and impose deep costs on governments ill-equipped to handle the shock. The knock-on impact will be fewer resources not only for health but also for areas like education, training and investment, which can lead to frustration and anger, and an increased risk of unrest or conflict.
In many African countries, children have missed out on months of education and social contact. At home with few resources, they have gone hungry, missed health check-ups, and been exposed to greater risk of violence and abuse. The impact on mental health and wellbeing is significant, and the consequences enduring.
It is at moments like these that governance comes to the fore. The pandemic is an unprecedented test of leadership, one which many African leaders have stepped up to. Some have acted more decisively than peers in other parts of the world. But they can’t rest on their laurels. Every day brings new, harder decisions that will shape outcomes for generations.
On public health, on education, investment and even tax policy, leaders must act intelligently at a national, regional, and continental level. They need to seize the opportunity to introduce policies that provide better protection for their populations as they weather the pandemic and emerge from it.
So how does Africa turn this crisis into a springboard for change? For me, creating opportunities for children and young people to prosper must be at centre of the response. That requires a laser focus on education, training, investment and jobs. These aren’t just warm words. All the evidence supports the case – successful societies invest in their youth, producing lifelong, intergenerational benefits for health, education and the economy.
There must be investment, the type that creates jobs and builds stronger societies. Investment is growing in Africa – from governments, public and private corporations, private equity funds and financial institutions – but it still tends to be short-term and hit hard by sudden changes in sentiment or commodity prices.
There are, however, signs of a shift. Major global economies recognise the value and importance of closer ties with the continent. They see markets like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana or Kenya, with tens or hundreds of millions of citizens, bright minds and dynamic ideas. They want to invest for the long-term in infrastructure and industrial development, and they think about future consumers, too. This is critical to strengthening trade between Africa and the rest of the world, but we must also build on the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area and strengthen trade networks within the continent.
By 2030, a fifth of the world’s population will be from Africa. Every year, tens of millions more young people from our continent join the labour market. They need the skills and training that allow them to realise their potential. Young people are our continent’s greatest asset, but if we don’t create opportunities for them – to learn, to find work, to be productive – we risk losing them as they migrate to places that can deliver what they’re looking for. The pandemic is a crisis for Africa, as it is for the world. But like every challenge, it presents opportunities. With the right decision-making, the ground can be laid to strengthen education, investment, jobs and trade. Whether it’s in the digital economy, the green transition, resources, energy or infrastructure, Africans have a role to play. We must seize this opportunity to build a better Africa.
Mo Ibrahim is the Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The 2021 Ibrahim Forum focused on the impact of COVID-19 on Africa and the continent’s path to recovery.