LONDON – The conversations at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the first day, are very different from discussions about Africa 10 to 15 years ago. He’s right — and he should know.
In the early 2000s, then-Sen. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, was one of the leaders in the bipartisan effort to scale up U.S. funding for the HIV/AIDS pandemic through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — just as both programs were gaining their footing in Africa.
As recently as 2000, “The Economist” had featured a notorious cover story calling Africa “the hopeless continent,” and debating its future of war, disease and endless poverty.
The representatives from some 50 African nations who arrived in Washington this weekend, by contrast, brought with them a ringing sense of optimism and hope — to say nothing of style and flair. In this miserable political year, the city could do with all those attributes.
The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa is making headlines, but recent progress on health issues in Africa has been little short of miraculous.
As U.S. President Barack Obama said to members of the Young African Leaders Initiative last week: “Over the last 20 years, HIV occurrence has been cut in half in Africa. Tuberculosis and malaria deaths have been reduced by 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.”
Africa is now home to many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, a burgeoning middle class and a vibrant technological sector, including mobile banking.
That is why so many of the African leaders attending the summit want to talk about their home not as a continent in crisis but as one of opportunity. They have come to discuss investment, trade — especially the tariff-free provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, due to be renewed by Congress next year — and infrastructure, all vital to the continent’s continued economic development.
They want their economies to grow and know what is needed to make that happen — jobs and education. In a recent survey of nine African nations that the ONE Campaign conducted with the firm GeoPoll by mobile phone (a sign of the times), these two concerns were the clear winners when respondents were asked to list their priorities.
Both the U.S. private sector and government have responded. During the summit, U.S. corporations are set to announce deals worth billions of dollars.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, will scale up its Power Africa initiative, which aims to leverage energy-sector investment to provide power to 20 million Africans.
It is a measure of how the terms of the debate on Africa have changed that energy access, barely a blip on the development agenda two years ago, is now front and center in U.S. policy. The administration’s initiative is being matched and supported — in a rare bipartisan display — by legislation in Congress that has already passed the House of Representatives.
Yet as Mo Ibrahim, the African philanthropist and former telecommunications executive, said at a session on Monday, the point is not to be for “Africa-pessimism or Africa-optimism” but for “Africa-realism.”
Fine words and Washington lunches will not transform the economic prospects of the continent overnight. Today, a little more than 400 million Africans live in extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than $1.25 a day, and they make up about a third of all those in the world who are extremely poor.
The African proportion of the worldwide total is almost certain to rise by 2030, as Asian economic growth continues strong. What happens to the number of poor people in Africa, however, will depend on what policies are adopted between now and then.
We have a chance to virtually end worldwide poverty. But if we do not get things right, the number of Africans in extreme poverty could easily rise in the next 15 years.
That’s why it’s key to avoid slipping into a discussion of African policy that is riddled with false dichotomies — as if then it was about tackling health and poverty, while now it should be about growth and opportunity. The truth is, these are two sides of the same coin.
A recent report commissioned by “The Lancet,” for example, found huge economic gains from investing in health. It shows why funding for programs fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria is crucial. A successful replenishment next year of the coffers of the GAVI Alliance, the international public-private partnership that helps fund immunization programs, is also vital.
By the same token, for all the exciting talk of mobile banking, funding to support smallholder farmers, improve food security and modernize the agriculture sector is critical to building sustained economic success in Africa. Mining, oil, gas and other extractive resources may provide the most revenue for many African governments, but as investor and philanthropist George Soros argued in Washington this week, it is agriculture that provides the jobs. Roughly 70 percent of Africans rely on farming for their livelihood. Developing agriculture is the fastest and surest way out of poverty.
The best news coming out of the summit is that policymakers understand these old and new narratives are part of the same story. Through hard work, skill and determination, Africans are building something new and exciting. But as homeowners everywhere know, while the balustrades get designed, it’s always worth making sure the brickwork is sound and foundations secure.
In the last two decades, funding to tackle Africa’s health crises, poverty and hunger have been essential to provide the wherewithal for growth and prosperity. Now is not the time to forget that truth.
Michael Elliott is president and CEO of The ONE Campaign, a global advocacy group fighting poverty and preventable disease. The opinions expressed are his own.