Does the World Economic Forum on Africa deliver on its promises? You might be surprised at the answer

Lost in such criticism is the fact that the event’s focus on the region narrows down the conversation to issues that really matter to Africa.

WHEN the dust settled and the last delegate had left town, the inevitable question was posed, does the World Economic Forum on Africa, now in its 25th edition, change anything? 

It is easy to think of it as another talkshop—a lot of talking and backslapping does go on, when many charge Africa should instead be focused on getting things done. You can hardly walk the corridors without tripping over a recognised name. And there there is the real question: just how much can be done in only frenetic two days?

But lost in such criticism is the inescapable fact that the resulting urgency, and the event’s focus on the region, narrows down the conversation to issues that really matter to Africa, from gaping trillion-dollar infrastructure holes to governance and human rights. 

We have hundreds of leaders who have a regional voice, from the political sphere, civil society, academia and the media, sharing their ideas on how to add more impetus to growth on the continent which has consistently remained above global average.

Plenty of stocktaking is done, from the performance of multilateral institutions to the continent’s response to crises, such as Ebola. It can at times get defensive—what is the AU really up to, or why put out more begging bowls, when tens of billions are ferreted out every year as illicit cash?

But you also get nuggets of rich statistical information, from the region’s competitiveness and risk perception, to the number of women directors on African boards.

It is also an event that provides lots of opportunities, many charged by fiery optimism, with feverish bilateral meetings going round the clock. But it is its ability to focus the narrative that is really unrivalled. All year round the ever-visible development community starts multiple strands of conversation in the region, of which following can be a task for the uninitiated. 

Some are solid, such as the continent’s demographic shift, urbanisation and the skills gap, some not-so much such as the role of China, and others quite sterile, such as the definition of the continent’s middle class.

But the WEF acts as a distiller: this year it centred on only three easily grasped subject matters, wrapped up in an encompassing Then and Now: Reimagining Africa’s future theme.

From there you can drill down to robust issues, such as if the continent’s growth is inclusive, to how future economic expansion will be funded and how Africa can own its development agenda post-MDG.

This year’s conversation also came at a key time for the continent, which some have said rivals 1945 as the most important year in development.

Later this month major players will meet in Addis Ababa to figure out how the continent’s next growth phase will be funded. There is already talk of “trillions”, only this time more targeted at infrastructure, rather than shooting in the dark. And as usually accompanies such events, some are already grousing about being left out.

Later in the year leaders at the UN are expected to adopt the successors to the much-pilloried though well-intentioned MDGs, the 17-pillar Sustainable Development Goals.

And in December the Paris COP 21 will bring the niggling issue of the continent’s existence sharply into view. 

Getting a common position has never been so vital if a clear path is to emerge from all the dissonance that accompanies so many competing interests.

But from all these high-profile meetings there will need to be an answer to Africa’s durable challenges: delivering inclusive growth, reducing the cost of doing business, providing food security and eliminating the stubborn non-tariff barriers that make intra-regional trade and integration such a headache.

The resounding message from this year’s event was the need for partnerships between the private and public sectors. In other words the era of development players going it all alone was declared long buried. In this regard that World Economic Forum on Africa delivered on its promise.

—The author is deputy editor of Mail & Guardian Africa

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