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Africa’s leaders have a job on their hands

29th January 2016

The start of the year is always a time for bold predictions and worthy resolutions. How many of those are already out of date by the end of January, I wonder? In a bid to get my own moorings for the year ahead I asked my Country Directors recently: what is front of mind for your President this year? What’s the number one thing they want to move forward on? The most common answer was “jobs”.

AGI now works alongside eight leaders and their governments who themselves represent almost half a billion increasingly informed, connected and ambitious citizens. So the importance of jobs is no surprise. An Afrobarometer survey published recently found that more than one in three Africans cited jobs as their main concern for the future. With almost three million people entering the job market in 2016 alone, jobs need to be created at a rate of around 7,000 a day just to keep pace with a rapidly growing young population. Talk about running just to stand still. 

The stakes are high at every level: from the young parent looking to provide for their even younger family, to the national leader keen to secure stability and create prosperity and the world leader trying to work out how to deal with the effects of migration caused by conflict and uncertainty. And what we see, working at the very heart of our partner governments, is that they are alert to the need for more inclusive growth that meets this challenge.

The means of achieving this are not uniform. Each country we work in has a unique approach, tailored to its strengths and circumstance. In Ethiopia, as the Government seeks to capitalise on the rise of wages in Asian manufacturing jobs, we’re continuing to support the rollout of a plan to create two million jobs over the next ten years through a set of major industrial parks that will encourage investment in Addis and beyond. In Nigeria, where around one in six people are employed in small businesses, we’ve helped establish the new Development Bank which is set to support almost a quarter of a million entrepreneurs over the next five years. In Rwanda, a small country with a big vision, we’re working on boosting nascent export industries in non-traditional agricultural products, as well as on developing the ICT sector as it seeks to become a tech hub for the region.

In West Africa these issues have an additional impetus and urgency in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. One of the proudest moments of 2015 for me was to be in Freetown for the official declaration of the end of the Ebola outbreak. There have been further isolated cases since and I am sure there will be in the future. Ongoing vigilance and resourcing is critical. But the crisis is over and the region has moved on and now the rest of the world should do so too. We can’t ignore the economic challenge that unfolded in the background of the Ebola crisis; collapsing commodity prices triggered a crash in growth rates that will take time to turn around.

That’s why our work in Liberia is now focused on developing the potential of oil palm, cocoa, rubber processing and fish, while in Sierra Leone we’ll be supporting private sector development in agriculture and other sectors. Above all, the three countries need the tag “Ebola-affected” to be dropped and the stigma of the virus to be eradicated, if the sort of investment that will generate jobs is to return.

Another major issue at the top of the priority list for all of the Presidents we work with is access to electricity. From the Kaleta dam in Guinea to the Rwamagana solar plant in Rwanda, 2015 saw some notable successes in bringing much needed power to the people. But there is an awful long way to go in fulfilling Africa’s energy needs. Fortunately power is top of many development partners’ lists too, as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) launched its Energy Africa campaign and the Africa Progress Panel exposed the sharp effect felt by consumers of a consistent failure to increase supply and lower costs, noting that the relative cost per unit of power in many African countries is far higher than in London or New York.

For our part we are delighted to be working in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and President Obama’s flagship Power Africa initiative. Over the last year we’ve been piecing together a Senior Advisors Network (SAG) which will bring unparalleled technical and political expertise to bear in those countries who want to spark a change. The SAG includes leaders in their field such as former President Olesugun Obasanjo, Keith Palmer, Tutu Agyare, Dr. Kandeh Yumkella and Frannie Leautier.

The hard fact is that power sector development has been a priority for a long time, and the lack of progress is not down to a shortage of money or skills. Getting real movement in Africa’s power sector is going to need a combination of policy and regulatory reform, serious long term investment and regional collaboration, all of which requires concerted political leadership. Without that, Africa’s power gap will remain just as big in ten years’ time as it is now, which would be a tragic waste of effort and human potential. 

Creating jobs and turning the lights on are just two of the common challenges for Africa’s leaders in 2016. The excellent Brookings Foresight Africa report highlights others, including the speed at which major cities are growing and continued efforts to realise the potential of intra and international trade. And each government we work with has their own issues and priorities, such as the focus on maternal health in Sierra Leone or improving standards in education in Liberia. But across East and West Africa, despite the different contexts in each country, jobs and power keep coming to the fore.

In the West we often fall into a binary debate about Africa. Is it a continent of hope or despair? Afri-optimism or Afri-pessimism? These are false choices which miss the more nuanced and messy reality of the different paths to development that all African countries – or just all countries – are on. This is why the focus on job creation matters, because it shows these countries and their leaders are moving on from a relationship dominated by aid and recognises that solutions to their challenges can’t all be found in pre-packaged donor and NGO programmes. It requires leaders with the space and support to tackle the complex issues that emerge from young and growing populations that are connected to the modern world and expect to play their part in it.

And hence if there is a third theme for us this year, it is to speak out more on the lessons and insights of our work. As our experience gets broader and deeper we are learning more than ever: about what it takes to build trust in complex environments as well as how policy lessons from one country can be applied and adapted in another. This year we will look to deepen our expertise in a range of areas from private sector development to project finance. And we will be publishing a series of papers which focus on what we see as the “art of delivery” which has to sit alongside more technical solutions to the challenge of effective government. Things like the need to channel leadership and political authority; genuine, country-led prioritisation as the basis for accountability; and the importance of adaptive working methods to build local solutions around local leaders. The enduring privilege of our work is, above all else, the trust that we are afforded by our partner governments, and in telling our own story this year I hope we can also bring to life those of the extraordinary colleagues and public servants we work with, as they grapple with and solve these complex policy challenges.

As we reach the end of January my new year’s resolutions have all faded, but by the end of 2016 the issues that matter to Africa today will still matter. It is an inherent jeopardy in pursuing “development” that there is always further to go. Whether its job creation or power generation, true success will take many years. That is not a reason to be optimistic or pessimistic. It’s the way things are. But I do believe that the countries we support – and others that I hope we’ll work with in the future – can achieve a transformation over the coming five to ten years. This is the window of opportunity that, I tell my team, I want us to be a part of. At the heart of that transformation must be an inclusive growth that ensures Africa’s young and growing population is genuinely a demographic dividend and not a recipe for instability. Africa’s governments are up to challenge – it’s quite a job.