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Africa: Navigating the grey scale

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woman working with fabric in BurundiTo transform economic growth into shared prosperity, African countries must boost employment creation. Photo: Aude Rossignol/UNDP Burundi

The recent news out of Africa offers a mix of optimism and gloom, defying simple theories that the continent is either rising or hopeless. What is missing in either of these narratives is the admission that development involves a process of ebb and flow, full of progress and setbacks.

On that grey scale, economic growth can lead to increased levels of inequality and even co-exist with political instability and conflict. When this reality is taken into account, the question becomes not whether a country is growing but how to make the transition from economic growth to a situation of shared prosperity and stability.
Breakthroughs are possible, and they can lead to marked improvements in the lives of ordinary women and men.

Take Mauritius. The island nation has transformed itself from a poor sugar producer into a diversified, modern economy that exports textiles and excels at providing international financial services to the rest of the world. Ethiopia is another example. Over the past three decades, the country became one of Africa’s fastest-growing, non-energy economies and its exports have diversified to include leather goods, agricultural products and textiles. The government is investing massively to transform its agriculture, climate-proof the economy and eliminate child mortality.

This example showcases three important success factors: First, there needs to be vision, leadership and political commitment to steer development in the right direction - sometimes against entrenched interests. The state has a key role to play in helping specific industries to flourish, setting the right business environment and making investments in social services and vital infrastructure such as roads and electricity.

Second, it takes a strong economy to sustain large investments in human development over time. The world’s most successful emerging economies, including countries such as China, Brazil and South Africa, have pursued aggressive industrialization policies and increased their integration with the world economy while achieving higher levels of technological sophistication, and training their workforces in the process. With revolutionary advances in mobile phone technology, medical research and open data, Africa has a huge opportunity to leapfrog and make that happen.

Third, people and especially young women and men, need to drive the development process. By 2050, the region’s population will swell by an estimated 200 million. If the graduates of today are already having trouble finding jobs or feel disempowered politically, then the problem is likely to become much more serious over time. At its most serious, disenfranchisement can increase risks of violence, terrorism and political instability.

Investing in people does not only mean creating social safety nets. It also requires us to listen to their views, let their creativity flourish and build the foundations of a functioning democratic state.

Read the full version of this post on This is Africa.

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