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This Ain’t Your Grand-Daddy’s Africa: Looking Beyond the Challenges to Lock in the Opportunities

This event unpacked and explored the nature and drivers of Africa’s ongoing transformation, identified some of the key challenges and opportunities related to this transformation, and highlighted strategic points for positive engagement for African leaders, the U.S., and other international partners.

Date & Time

Jun. 11, 2019
2:00pm – 3:45pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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On June 11, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted a Brown Capital Management Africa Forum event entitled This Ain’t Your Grand-Daddy’s Africa: Looking Beyond the Challenges to Lock in the Opportunities. This discussion focused on assessing Africa’s ongoing transformations, identifying challenges and opportunities, and highlighting strategic points for positive engagement for policymakers.

Congresswoman Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center and Mr. Keith Lee, President and Chief Operating Officer, Brown Capital Management, welcomed the guests and emphasized the importance of challenging the persistent, negative narrative about Africa, noting that while there are many challenges there are also great opportunities for positive transformation. The panel included Ms. Zintle Koza, Director, International Organizations, National Treasury of South Africa and Public Policy Fellow, Wilson Center; Ambassador Jendayi E. Frazer, Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, U.S. Department of State and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Dr. Samuel Munzele Maimbo, Senior Adviser, Office of the Managing Director & Chief Financial Officer, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/International Development Association, World Bank; Dr. Joseph Siegle, Director for Research, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University; Mr. Travis Adkins, Lecturer of African and Security Studies, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; and Ms. Unami Jeremiah, Board Member, The Africa Youth and Adolescents Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN) East and Southern Africa and Founder, Mosadi Global Trust.

Ms. Koza opened the discussion by describing four main transformations occurring in Africa today: financial inclusion and financial technology (fintech), intra-Africa migration, urbanization, and accountability. She noted that Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the fastest growing regions for fintech—allowing Africans to move up the financial services value chain and toward developing a digital economy. On migration, she noted that that most migration is intra-African. While this offers some risks, it also offers opportunities to “facilitate the growth of the African citizen.” Urbanization is another trend that will provide opportunities and challenges for infrastructure, services, planning, and voting patterns. She also noted a return to grassroots mobilization and protests against political and economic inequities. She recommended that policymakers focus on policy coherence and implementation of regional economic integration plans to capitalize on the ongoing transformations.

Ambassador Frazer identified the demographic shift, technological development, and evolving global geopolitics as major transformations. While the “youth bulge” is often portrayed negatively, African youth can be agents of change and are pushing for greater accountability and economic inclusion. The second major transformation is rapid technological development. While new technologies can improve services, they also pose risks to privacy and democracy through government surveillance, negative use of social media, and “fake news.” Finally, transformations in the global geostrategic landscape include the apparent decline of liberal democracies and free trade, and the rising influence of China, Russia, and the Gulf states. She recommended that the U.S. update its mindset about engagement with Africa, and that African countries benchmark progress along with the pace of global developments, ensuring that all these efforts—both in terms of mindset and new engaging new opportunities, are done at scale to maximize their impact.

Dr. Maimbo’s remarks on the economic space identified transformations in commercial institutions, health, and the democratization of finance. The environment for commercial institutions in Africa is improving, offering new opportunities for entrepreneurs, and developments in health have resulted in major reductions in mortality. The democratization of finance and the rise of fintech has increased access to banking for households and finance for firms, while reducing government dependence on international financial institutions. He underlined the importance of efforts like PEPFAR, which has been critical in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Dr. Maimbo identified three main areas of concern: public and corporate debt, state fragility, and climate change. He prioritized investing in data to “let Africa tell its own story,” increasing private sector investment, and building human capital.

Dr. Siegle focused on governance. He identified transformations in access to information, increasing protests, and forced displacement. Dr. Siegle noted that digital technology is also reshaping the governance space in Africa. Access to the internet and digital communications is rapidly expanding, with Africans getting more and better information. The increase in protest movements is a positive development that indicates increased democratic participation as people demand democratic reforms and improved service delivery. Forced displacement is a critical issue, with 25 million displaced Africans. Since most displaced people originate from conflict zones, there is a link between instability and autocratic governance. He also noted a gradual strengthening of democratic institutions and a pushback by governments against the increased access to information. He recommended making democracy and good governance the rubric for engagement and investing more in institutions.

Mr. Adkins spoke to transformations in Africa’s security landscape. He noted the shift from inter-state conflicts to other security threats (e.g., terrorism, riots, insurgencies, unrest), and reflected Ambassador Frazer’s comments by observing that Africa is increasingly seen in terms of “great game” competition by external powers. He identified four mega-transformations: the development deficit, wherein gains from economic growth are not evenly distributed; incomplete democratization—the fact that many autocrats have learned to adopt the façade of democracy without actual accountability; changing demographics—which offer promise, but risk if governments cannot provide opportunity; and enduring strife in several conflict complexes where regional and proxy conflicts continue to destabilize societies. He recommended that the U.S engage with Africans as partners on governance, economic growth, and building institutions.

Ms. Jeremiah’s remarks on youth and gender emphasized the rise in women’s political leadership, youth unemployment and underemployment, and the digital economy. Jeremiah noted that Africa is leading the way in ensuring greater representation for women. However, electoral processes still disadvantage women. While youth unemployment is a serious issue that receives much attention, there are also many overqualified young people who are underemployed because of a shortage of high-skill work. While Ms. Jeremiah acknowledged the positive aspects of the digital economy, she cautioned about security and the lack of safeguards to prevent human trafficking. She observed that the internet has created a society that only reacts to information, without understanding the context. She recommended greater investment in human capital development, with an emphasis on gender-responsive education and improved health and education infrastructure.

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Selected Quotes

Congresswoman Jane Harman

“…important transformations [are] taking place in Africa across many sectors. First, from economics, with many African countries experiencing rapid economic growth, while others once again risk the debt trap; second to governance, where efforts at democratization have had mixed results; and third to security, where some long-standing conflicts are drawing down, while new threats emerge. These changes offer both promise and peril for the continent—especially for young people who will have to live in the new Africa that emerges.”

Mr. Keith Lee

“..too often in the United States, the narrative that we hear about Africa is one of poverty, war, and ineffective or failed states. It is a crisis, a place best engaged through aid packages and humanitarian assistance. This has never been the entire story, and today more than ever, Africa is undergoing enormous transformations that challenge this narrative.”

While there are certainly many challenges that remain—as well as brand new ones emerging—there are also enormous opportunities for economic growth, development and investment; more effective and representative governance; and improved security. If African stakeholders and their international partners are able to engage with these transformations to make the most of new opportunities, while overcoming challenges (both new and old), then there is great cause for optimism.

Ambassador Jendayi E. Frazer

“I think the demographic shift is going to be a major factor in the development of the continent and this world. And I don’t see it as many people see it as a ticking bomb. I think that actually the youth in Africa are agents of change…They’re pushing for greater accountability of all governing bodies. They’re pushing for greater economic inclusion. And I see that energy as being a major driver of change.”

“I say there is opportunity. But the problem that I see… I feel largely that African countries are, once again, witnesses to big, global, political [and] geopolitical changes and not necessarily agents in the movement of the world today.”

“African populations want freedom. They want transparency. They do not want to be governed by autocratic states…Even though the Western history with Africa is problematic, from colonialism and slavery [etc.], but in fact the global position that the liberal order represents is more aligned with the values of the African population.”

Dr. Samuel Munzele Maimbo

On Africa’s economic growth: “If you take out the big economies of South Africa, Nigeria, and Angola, you find that growth on the continent is actually at 4.7 [percent] which is remarkable when global growth is at 2.3 [percent]. If you take the time to start unbundling these statistics that people are too quick to throw, there’s actually a fantastic growth story in many more countries than we give credit to.

“When people say ‘Nigeria is a lost cause’ or ‘its spoiling its oil revenue’, I point to the data and say that Nigeria actually grew because its invested in agriculture. We never talk about agriculture in Nigeria but it is there. And so my role is to shine the light on the data that allows Africa to tell its own story.”

Dr. Joseph Siegle

On the impact of technology on governance in Africa: “Africa is the fastest changing continent in terms of gaining access to information…So people are getting more information, better information than they ever have. And this is changing the way they engage with governments, the way they think about issues, [and] the way they are informed. And so I think this is very hopeful and will continue to be transformative.”

“We’ve seen a gradual strengthening of institutions in Africa across a host of sectors that are important for accountability and better governance…There’s higher level training and education. There’s more strengthening that’s happening. This is not always consistent [and] it’s not uniform across the continent…But it’s an important change that needs to be recognized. And to realize this isn’t our “grand-daddy’s Africa.’”

Prof. Travis Adkins

“So many repressive leaders – tyrants and dictators – have mastered the game we like to play. Did you have an election? Was it “free and fair”? Now we’ve moved from free and fair to safe, secure, right? Moving away from certain types of metrics which are very difficult for us to manage.”

On the growing youth demographic: “There is a serious challenge as to whether governments will be prepared to take on this surge of folks coming into the workforce or at least of working age. What skills will they be prepared with? Will they have opportunities? And if they don’t, what is going to become of them and all of the energy that they bring to a society?”

On U.S. engagement with Africa: “Right now, I would critique us for essentially viewing Africa as a toy that we weren’t playing with, and then we didn’t get interested in until someone else picked it up, so I would want us to move away from that – to see the continent on its own terms, not as some global backwater. I would chide us and say that you can’t be a global leader, if you’re going to ignore broad swaths of the globe.”

Ms. Unami Jeremiah

“I would say that quite often, a lot of times, the youth is always seen as that constituency that is meant to bring about the change, that is going to benefit from the change. But when it comes to the actual engagement of young people in political spaces, and economic decision making spaces, we do not find young people, we do not find women, in those spaces.”

“We often talk about youth unemployment, but we don’t talk about youth under- employment. Because we find that in Sub-Saharan Africa particularly, a lot of young people cannot afford not to work. So, whatever job that you get, you will get and work at it, even if it’s paying you next to nothing, even if it’s not safe, it doesn’t have any benefit, you would take that job because you cannot afford not to work. So when we look at this data and say youth unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa is dropping, we should be more focused on the type of jobs that these African youth are getting or are involved with.”

Ms. Zintle Koza

On growing intra-Africa migration which far outpacing extra-Africa migration: “For policymakers this then begs the question - how do you facilitate the growth of the African citizen? Because that is where we are coming to now. If you are born in Somalia, you grow up in Kenya, you go and you live and work in Johannesburg. How then do policymakers adapt to that? And also enable the space for that type of talent to be utilized.”

On the growing protest movement across African countries: “It’s a return to the grassroots resilience and mobilization that defined so much of the anticolonial struggle. I think for quite a while as African people, we gave the space away for our voices to governments. But since the 2000s, it’s been fantastic to see that we are reclaiming that space, and demanding that our discontent be taken care of.”

“There’s only been so much that ordinary Africans are willing to put up with, and this is the time that, as governments, we really need to stop the rhetoric and implement.”

Launched in September 2015, the Brown Capital Management Africa Forum provides a premier platform for substantive and solutions-oriented dialogue on key trade, investment, and development issues in Africa, and in U.S.-Africa relations. Convening business leaders and policymakers, as well as subject matter experts from the United States and Africa, the Brown Capital Management Africa Forum sponsors a series of public events designed to support the development of economic engagement and policy options that advance mutually beneficial economic relations between Africa and the United States. The Brown Capital Management Africa Forum is made possible by the generous support of Brown Capital Management.

This Ain’t Your Grand-Daddy’s Africa: Looking Beyond the Challenges to Lock in the Opportunities

Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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