Africa – The Next Twenty Years


AFRICANGLOBE – What can Africa anticipate over the next twenty years? More of the same? If it is not to be more of the same, what economic and political processes need to change? J. Paul Martin looks into Africa’s future and addresses these crucial questions.

Given the political and economic patterns set over the last 60 years, what can Africa expect over the next 20 years? If not more of the same, what needs to be changed?

Sixty years ago, emboldened by such figures as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Leopold Senghor, Africans were enjoying the fresh air and the expectations of independence. The newly independent states boasted new constitutions, new universities and new social and economic plans for growth supported by strong development programs and optimistic populations.

Today the atmosphere is much less optimistic. Rather than planning for tomorrow, most Africans, if not also their governments, are more concerned with getting by today. Overseas aid has degenerated into a network of lotteries where African governments and NGOs scramble to fit into funding priorities set by Washington, Brussels and now China and India. Few are the African governments and local NGOs that do not feel dependent on friends from overseas. Foreign direct investment increases, but few governments manage to guide the income into sustainable local social and economic development. Even Africa’s civil society, where local initiative, self-help and energy have been the most visible, is denigrated by Africa’s intellectuals as being too focused on their international donors rather than on responding to the needs and priorities of African communities. Given the patterns set over the last sixty years and the situation today, what can Africa anticipate over the next twenty years? More of the same? If it is not to be more of the same, what economic and political processes need to change?

Tomorrow’s Africa

The general trajectory of change in Africa over the last sixty years has to a large degree set parameters that will govern what it can expect over the next twenty years. Such a premise provides little to suggest that future political and economic change will come in other than uneven and modest increments. For some countries the change will be progressive, while others may have little to show. Although arbitrary, the lens of the next twenty years is a useful timeframe. It is short enough to be constrained by trends and factors that are already visible. It is also a substantial enough in the sense that in twenty years the Africans born today will be taking on their adult roles. What is the world that Africa’s leaders are planning for them? What can be predicted and for what does Africa need to prepare over the next twenty years?

By 2033, it is reasonable to expect that Africa will have become an even more important source of the world’s minerals, resulting in a strong, even dominant, presence of large and small, legal and illegal, extractive and agricultural industries, financed largely by external funds and protected by national officials as needed sources of national income. As today, the economic, political, environmental and social impact of these industries will remain problematic. Countries that are truly able to harness the income from these resources in ways that contribute to the general welfare of the country have the chance to be in the progressive scenario. Those that are unable to harness the income and to use it fruitfully will inevitably fall into the regressive segment.

As it is also likely that Africa’s mineral and agricultural resources sector will be the major source of most governments’ revenue in the next twenty years, success or failure in benefiting from these resources will have a serious impact on each government’s ability to govern and to provide services to its citizens. Judging by the last twenty years, growth in other economic sectors including, unfortunately, traditional agriculture and especially energy will be modest and will absorb rather than generate national income. International consumer businesses such as Coca-Cola and communications’ corporations will continue to find markets in Africa. Other corporations from Brazil, China and India will join them. Some African countries will be successful in developing local industries but even the latter will be susceptible to acquisition by their international counterparts. Even without considering the impact of payments for Africa’s international debt, the net result of these trends in both the extractive and the consumer industries will be a continuing flow of wealth (funds and non-renewable raw materials) out of Africa.

Judging by the trends visible today, this macro pattern will do little to change wealth distribution within most states in Africa where the top 1 percent of the population control most of the domestic wealth. Only in a few states such as Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda can the middle class be expected to grow significantly. This growth will depend on diversification within those economies, on the ability of larger segments of the citizenry to earn the income needed to assure improved standards of family life, access to education and healthcare as well as savings for retirement, and thus on their ability to reduce professional brain drain. Good governance will be crucial to all. In spite of current efforts, it is hard to see that poor governance, corruption and identity politics will not continue to play influential roles in the acquisition and distribution of wealth and political influence.

One powerful determinant of Africa’s economic and political future will be the capacity of each country to prepare and retain the range of professionals needed to run its key private and public sectors and thus to reduce dependence on international expertise. Building the capacity of the needed indigenous professionals depends on each state’s education system and especially on its universities. It is already possible to see a growing gap between those African states such as Ghana that are able to commit major new funds (and greater independence) to the education sector and those that are not making any such commitments. To remain within the progressive segment of the development spectrum, the level of in-country education must increase to provide graduates at the different levels with the skills needed for national development. At the same time, economic planning must open up real entrepreneurial and employment options to reduce both dependence on international personnel and the brain drain.

It is equally reasonable to predict that over the next twenty years, two factors bringing change to social, political and human relationships across Africa will be the continuing growth of civil society organizations and the political presence of women. Gender mainstreaming in government is being promoted by some governments, most recently in Liberia under the leadership of President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Women’s organizations in Ghana have successfully lobbied the government to pass strong legislation on domestic violence, and are following through by building partnerships among private and public institutions to enforce the provisions. But there are also many negative societal forces.

Violence against women in war has increased. Trafficking of women and children still receives a low priority in government budgets. For their part civil society organizations have expanded their agenda and range of action, moving from cities out into the rural areas. Local human rights groups now seek to build more cooperative relationships with governments, rather than simply confronting them. There is also some evidence to show that civil society has begun to persuade Africa’s legislatures and its justice and court systems to assert more independence from the executive branch.