Mixed messages out of Africa

Two contrasting narratives on Africa’s fragile economic development will confront heads of state gathering in Turkey for a critical UN conference on the world’s “Least Developed Countries” which starts today.

At the World Economic Forum on Africa which concluded in Cape Town on Friday, leading politicians and development bankers painted a picture of dynamic economic recovery, positioning the continent as the most exciting destination for foreign business investment.

Preparatory papers for the LDC conference tell a very different story. Poverty and hunger figures in Africa are rising rather than falling. And richer countries are accused of failing to control the unstable global economic and environmental conditions which inflict unjust setbacks on the most vulnerable economies.

Such views remained in the background at the World Economic Forum where a study published by the African Development Bank told prospective business investors what they most wanted to hear. A new middle class is emerging in Africa.

The AfDB puts this figure “in the neighborhood of 300 to 500 million people,” a potential market for consumer goods that commercial interests cannot ignore. “Africa’s emerging middle class comprises roughly the size of the middle class in India or China,” claims the report, titled “The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa.”

The World Bank lent its authority to the findings. Interviewed by the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, the Bank’s Africa Chief Economist, Shanta Devarajan, said: “there is a palpable sense of optimism around Africa and the private sector at the Forum, with delegates referring to Africa as an Investment Destination.”

This investor-friendly picture is consistent with anecdotal evidence from business travellers. The working environment of Africa’s major cities is beginning to converge with global norms whilst there is no shortage of young entrepreneurial Africans ready to do business.

A note of caution at the World Economic Forum event was sounded by the Africa Progress Panel, a high level research and advocacy group chaired by former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. The Panel’s annual Africa Progress Report, published last week, describes the continent’s economic recovery as “low quality growth….heavily dependent on the export of primary, generally unprocessed commodities.”

The official input of African governments to the LDC conference contains more explicit reservations, devoid of Cape Town’s eldorado rhetoric. Their verdict warns that: “improved economic performance in African LDCs has not contributed to commensurate gains in poverty reduction.”

The African paper also observes that the chaotic state of global food and energy markets, combined with the impact of climate change, is such that “hunger remains pervasive in many African LDCs.”

Held every ten years, the UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries will review progress since the previous event in Brussels in 2001. It will also seek renewal of the international community’s commitment to the special needs of LDCs made at various UN conferences and summits over recent years. Of the 48 countries falling within the LDC classification, 33 are in Africa.

It is evident from this review by Africa’s LDC governments that fresh optimism about an emerging middle class should be tempered by the rural economic facts of life. The majority of Africans live and work in farming communities where agriculture remains trapped in a primitive state, with only 3% of land benefiting from irrigation.

Despite international commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, the number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa has increased over the decade from 270 million to more than 300 million. This was the finding of the Rural Poverty Report 2011, published by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The challenge for more inclusive African economic development is to break down the barriers between embryonic urban consumers and impoverished farming communities. African leaders increasingly articulate a vision of farming as a business proposition, attracting investment and persuading the younger generation not to migrate to the cities.

This is the vital issue for South Africa’s minister of agriculture, Tina Joemat-Pettersson. “If they stay on the farm, these upcoming smallholder farmers will be in the forefront of innovative, knowledge intensive agriculture,” she said at a debate on the IFAD report in Cape Town.

The LDC conference is likely to see a shift of emphasis away from potential private investment towards the responsibilities of richer governments to honor their commitments to Africa. The poverty-centered narrative of Africa’s fortunes will be prominent once again in Istanbul this week.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News