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ECONOMY: 'Africa Should Seize Control over its Development'

Annelise Sander

GENEVA, May 29 2009 (IPS) - Colonisation can be blamed for Africa's underdevelopment but today Africans must take their fate in their own hands and become ambitious. The continent badly needs industrialisation but it has fallen back into the trap of merely exporting commodities because of booming prices.

These are the innovative statements made by some of the region's highest decision-makers at the first African Forum for Dialogue, organised by the African Union in Geneva under the heading "Africa's Development: Whose Responsibility?" on May 27.

"I am angry because Africa is in such a bad way," said a passionate Kandeh Yumkellah, the director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). "We are paying the price for other people's mistakes, like climate change and the financial crisis, but whose responsibility is it?

"Ours! We are educated. We can blame colonialism for the past 350 years but, for the next 50, we are responsible."

It was a sentiment also shared by Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union Commission. "But it doesn't mean that we don't need the rest of the world. We live in a globalised world and need to open up," he added.

Speaker after speaker stressed that Africa needed to become more self reliant. But they also called for the strengthening of development cooperation. It is not a contradiction. It is all about development cooperation that takes into account the choices of the countries concerned.

Yumkellah cited the following model: "In Asia, the mantra is competitiveness, and then you create the roads and the port facilities you need. In Africa we talk everyday about crisis and poverty and our minds become small. Let's be ambitious! Deng Xiao Ping said: I want China to be the powerhouse of the world in thirty years. And today it is."

With the increase in commodity prices, Jean Ping remarked that trade terms are favourable to Africa for the first time in a century.

But Yumkellah warned: "Suddenly we are addicted to commodity trade again. But where is the value added? How do you create jobs if you don't have the manufacturing base? Manufacturing must take place in Africa – otherwise we will not cope with the huge forecasted growth in population."

Africa is perceived as irrelevant in globalisation because its contribution to manufacturing is less than three percent. And 70 percent of global trade takes place in this sector.

For the dynamic Sierra Leonean, Africans want to talk about transformation and not only about the wars in Darfur and the Congo. "But they (the North) don’t want to," he says.

"The Gulf of Guinea is one of the richest regions in the world but it has the poorest countries. Fishers are coming in from outside and over-fishing the waters. Let's pray that young men and women will not become the next pirates.

"Development assistance today is not about aid, but how you make Africa competitive to create jobs, otherwise our children will leave for the North."

He expressed regret that the continent was again missing an opportunity: "The third industrial revolution is green. We financed the first one with the slave trade. Let us not let the new industrial revolution pass us by," he added, pointing to the lack of interest and debate over green technologies and jobs on the continent.

Patricia Francis, the executive director of the International Trade Centre, agreed with the other speakers: "Aid in itself will not ensure development. We should be looking at a new path for development and not at the way people have done in the past that will take us back."

What is more, Africa needs a new business model that commits all stakeholders to address the issues of market access, protectionism, export finance, fluctuation in exchange rates and unemployment. The private sector plays a central role in these partnerships, together with international organisations.

But, once more, the vision for development on the continent can come only from Africans themselves.

For Nicolas Imboden, president of the Swiss-African Chamber of Commerce, foreign capital is already there. "In 2008, Africa was on top of the list of all regions in terms of private sector investment," he noted.

"Thanks to foreign direct investment, a 140 percent increase has taken place in projects, a 146 percent increase in capital investment and a 100 percent increase in job creation (over the past two years). No other region has experienced such incredible growth. Africa is back on the investors' scene and economics professors should go back to school."

But when looking more closely at the quality of this investment, there is a clear deficit in the manufacturing sector. Africa’s comparative advantages are in raw material, not in manufacturing, because of small markets and low income and purchasing power.

And the continent is not cheap: infrastructure is bad, electricity and transportation expensive and security still generates very high costs. And in terms of asset seeking, there are very few assets you can merge or acquire.

The solution is to enhance the competitiveness of human resources and strive to regional integration trough infrastructure, the meeting heard. Even after the crisis, Africa's economy is expected to grow by 2,8 percent in 2009. "While Europe is sick, Africa just caught a cold. The right measures are in place and we can hope for more investment," concluded Imboden on a positive note.

Regional integration is the way forward for Abdoulie Janneh, the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Another key requirement is to increase Africa's productive base. Since agriculture represents the largest part of gross domestic product, the first step is to foster agricultural productivity by providing credit to small-scale farmers and too improve electricity and water supply, roads and telecommunication.

In March 2009, UNECA helped establish the Pan-African Alliance for E-Commerce to better harness intra-African trade. This currently forms only 10 percent of countries' total exports. The project is meant to improve the flow of information, for example regarding documentation required by the different government authorities.

"The call for Africa to rely on its own strengths is very new," Martin Malusa, a non-governmental organisation representative, told IPS. "Coming from the highest decision-makers, it is extremely important. Civil society will have to hold them to their promises and make sure they fully take on their responsibility."

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