Wealthy nations, particularly the British government, which is facing its own budgetary constraints and pressures, are finally waking up to the opportunities in Africa and are taking a different approach to the continent in the wake of the global financial crisis.
“The old way, where the rich world gives and the poor world passively receives, looks increasingly out of date,” former UK prime minister Tony Blair told leading chief executives and global thinkers gathered at The Times CEO Summit Africa in London on Monday.
Blair, whose Africa Governance Initiative is intended to help leaders on the continent improve government structures, said there needed to be a new way for rich and poor countries to work together.
Africans in the driver’s seat
His advice to African countries was that they needed to be in the driver’s seat of their own development, set their own goals and make the decisions. “Where aid is needed, it should get behind these priorities and use and strengthen the government’s own systems,” he said. “With the right kinds of support and the right policies, Africa can be free of dependence on aid within a generation.”
Reducing African countries’ reliance on wealthy donor nations would help them break free of the West’s influence. There is a notion that aid doesn’t actually help poorer nations to grow and develop their economies.
Blair, who helped put Africa on the agenda at the Gleneagles G8 summit of 2005, recognised this, while also acknowledging that “aid promised has not been delivered in its entirety”.
But he pointed out that it “did result in a huge increase in resources flowing from the wealthier nations to the poorest, including in debt relief which allowed many countries to boost significantly the number of children being vaccinated and going to school for the first time”.
He said aid has helped with governance, quoting a report released on Monday by the global campaigners ONE, which said that by 2015, UK aid alone will have helped 44.9-million more people to vote in freer and fairer elections.
Losing out to the Chinese
Still, there was an acknowledgement that the UK was not doing enough in Africa and were losing out to the Chinese, whom Blair said had a different approach to funding and development in Africa as well as the political situation in the various countries. “China’s offering to Africa is fundamentally different to ours (the British). If China has changed the terms of engagement, we’re going to have to change.”
He said African leaders were tempted to turn to China for commercial investment for infrastructure projects over aid from the West. He illustrated the point with this example: “If a country in Africa wants something done, such as building a road, they go to the donor community and it ends up … (mired) in months of bureaucracy. If you tell the Chinese you want a road, the next day someone is out there with a shovel.”
He added that the United Kingdom “must see China as development partners instead of rivals. We’re nearly there, but there are many lessons we can take from the Chinese”.
There is a general sense of new optimism from the British government and investors about opportunities in Africa. Yet, there seems to be still a reluctance to pour money into capital investments because of political instability in some growth countries.
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, recognising that his country was in the news “for all the wrong reasons, agreed that the image of Africa needed to change.