In 1990, when Cameroon’s football team did the unthinkable and beat Argentina in the World Cup, the proportion of the world’s population living below the poverty line was 35.9%. Fast-forward 35 years to 2015, following a global adoption of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this figure now stands at 10%.
To use the concept of a universal benevolent dictator – a classic assumption in beginner economic courses to escape the complexities of real-world decision-making – such a person would no doubt have said, “The world is doing infinitely better!”
On the contrary, the world has not been doing as well as it should. The fact is, there have been warning signs all along. The proportion of people living below the poverty line in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 was an astonishing 41%, about the same as the global rate of extreme poverty in 1981.
On October 17, 2018, the then President of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, presented a report titled “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing together the Poverty Puzzle.” With rigorous data, the report clearly indicated that global conditions were not in place to bring the rate of extreme poverty below 3% by 2030. The most alarming case in point was Africa, where even in the most optimistic scenarios, the poverty rate would continue to be in double digits. The report was like having a pitcher of cold water upended on me.
But it was not the first time Jim Yong Kim had jolted me. A few years earlier in 2015, in Lima, Peru, during a panel at the Annual Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim’s projections caught my attention. In attendance were Peruvian President Ollanta Moises Humala Tasso; Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General; Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director; and Justine Greening, UK Secretary of State for International Development. For 90 minutes, they spoke eloquently about the type of partnerships that would be needed to make Agenda 2030 a reality; the international cooperation that would be deployed; the necessary financing mechanisms and formulas; and the creativity and citizen action required.
Gathered in this august venue, the guardians of the global architecture responsible for eradicating poverty spoke convincingly and articulately about the world of tomorrow. Collectively, they concluded that by 2030, we would end up, to quote Oscar Wilde, in a country called Utopia. The Road to Lima was a party.
Barely three years later, as 2018 dawned, the same global architecture presented us with a new story: the end of Utopia. In December 2019, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched its Human Development Report, “Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond the Present: Human Development Inequalities in the 21st Century”. As with the World Bank, the conclusion was straightforward and clear: While humanity is progressing, something is just not working in our globalized society. A new generation of inequalities, beyond basic capabilities, is emerging and threatens to render people living in developing countries obsolete in the future.
Combining the alarming 2018 World Bank report with the no less alarming 2019 UNDP report, the picture is not one of optimism. Not only was the aspiration to eradicate poverty by 2030 not going to be met, but a new inequality gap was opening up.
These challenges had previously been the focus of the World Economic Forum Regional Strategy Group (WEF RSG), of which I had the privilege of being a member. One of the ideas behind the WEF RSG was simple and irrefutable: Africa must leapfrog into the Fourth Industrial Revolution or risk being left behind.
In 2019, as well as in previous years, several countries – including my country, Equatorial Guinea – made important policy decisions to define and prioritize national development aspirations, in alignment with the UN’s Agenda 2030 and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Additionally, to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we scaled up our investments in ICT and technology and in developing the capacity of our youth.
And then, COVID-19 arrived. In just a few short months the world has changed. When we return to “normal”, it will be a “new normality” and a brave new world.
COVID-19 is an existential crisis. It is severely testing Africa’s social, economic and political resilience. In a post-COVID-19 world, the continent’s leaders will have to rethink many prior assumptions and find new balances for individual and collective behaviour.
What I am absolutely certain of is that opportunities will emerge. Innovative minds previously imprisoned by institutional inertia and interest groups will rise to the challenges that we collectively face.
What will the brave new world post COVID-19 look like in Africa? The African Development Bank estimates that Africa will lose between $35 and $100 billion due to the fall in raw material prices caused by the pandemic. The World Economic Forum estimates that global losses for the continent will be in the order of $275 billion. There is a real risk therefore that Africa’s inequality gap will worsen in the coming years.
Ever since the virus crossed the continent’s borders, regular bilateral and multilateral consultations among African finance ministers have philosophically revolved around the need to rethink our multifaceted responses to COVID-19 and other future threats that have equal or greater potential for disruption.
Today, African States are developing strategic and in-depth approaches to human development, regional integration, digitalization, industrialization, economic diversification, fiscal and monetary policies, and international solidarity. In short, they are rethinking the causes of the continent’s underdevelopment and coming up with feasible solutions. The outcomes will undoubtedly be good for Africa and for all humanity.
To better understand the scenarios before us, there are three sparks that could light a flame in the brave new world that is before us:
1. In 2001, African leaders pledged to invest around 15% of their budgets in health. By 2020, only five countries have fulfilled this promise. No one doubts today that the health sector in Africa will be strengthened by COVID-19. There are decisions that can no longer be postponed. In mid-March, a Togolese activist, Farida Nabourema, mocked African elites who used to go to Europe to have their ailments treated, saying: I would like to ask our African presidents who travel to Italy, Germany, France, the UK and other European countries for medical treatment, please, when are you leaving? On April 2, Bloomberg published an article entitled: Trapped by Coronavirus, Nigeria’s Elite faces squalid hospital. Things are going to change.
2. The vast majority of African countries, after COVID-19, will have to put in place social protection systems to mitigate the suffering of the continent’s most disadvantaged. Kenya and Equatorial Guinea offer excellent examples of countries that have regulated and put in place social protection systems that will survive and outlast our battle against this common enemy.
3. The continent’s poor pharmaceutical capacity has been a source of amazement to locals and foreigners alike. Bangladesh, a poorer country than many African countries, produces 97% of the national demand for medicines, in contrast to Africa which is almost 100% dependent on imports.
This last note has triggered another debate: the necessary industrialization of Africa, to transform and add value to the continent’s vast and valuable raw materials. Many African countries have already been deprived access to COVID-19 essentials. Excessive global demand has relegated Africa to the back of the queue. This is an early warning and lesson for Africa.
But there is much reason for optimism. The African Union is in discussions with Madagascar over the artemisia annua tonic, a herbal remedy that Andry Rajoelina, President of Madagascar, presented to the world as Africa’s solution to COVID-19.
Our enthusiasm as Africans is rooted in a wounded self-esteem. For way too long, we have been victims of marginalization. The power to regain our dignity has too often been stripped away. Today, nestled in the souls of all Africans is a rational expectation, an unshakable faith that the most important resource that Africa needs in order to rise up is none other than Africans themselves.
No one will help us if we do not help ourselves. Africa is no longer asking to be taught how to fish. Africa is already going fishing and rowing towards the utopia enunciated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. In spite of dire predictions and apocalyptic narratives, humanity always has a way of striving for a better future.