Africa pushes to stand on its own feet again —but the continent just doesn’t do things the easy way

African Union member states foot the bill for only 10% of the organisation's programmes

ADDIS ABABA: Perhaps if there was a moment that best captured the fits-and-starts nature of Africa’s development, it was a geopolitical wrangle that gobbled up half a day of a key gathering of experts in the Ethiopian capital on Thursday.

Morocco bitterly contested the sitting of Western Sahara at the opening of the meeting jointly organised by the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and which looks to seamlessly sew  together the continent’s and global growth plans.

The North African country’s delegation at various times threatened to walk out if the meeting went on, digging in on their position that the meetings be suspended.

As the arguments continued, the opening session revealed some discrete splits, with some French-speaking nations backing the Moroccans by pushing for the introduction of a new agenda item to discuss the North African nation’s concerns, while English-speaking nations led by South Africa sought to set aside a special session to resolve the issue later.

Morocco’s regional rival Algeria, which backs Western Sahara, was in the latter camp. Morocco has since 1957 claimed the territory, which the UN lists as a self-governing territory.  It is currently involved in a bitter spat with the UN after its head Ban Ki-moon recently termed its annexation of the region an “occupation”, leading Rabat to expel dozens of UN staff from its mission in the contested territory.

The Polisario Front has self-declared the territory as a republic and is recognised by some African states, but crucially, by no western countries.

The South African chair eventually ruled in favour of continuation, but it was hard to justify the energy expended on the issue by AU member states in terms of the opportunity cost, especially when Morocco is not a member of the bloc, having pulled out in 1984 when the Polisario-declared republic was admitted as a member.

The Specialised Technical Committee, as the expert meeting is known as, is looking to hammer out details of how to further meld the AU’s Agenda 2063 with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which run to 2030, and place the “harmonised” goals at the core of national and regional development plans.

The result will be further discussed by African ministers in charge of finance, economy, planning and integration at the weekend, as it makes its way up the continent’s hierarchy.

“Owning” Africa’s growth

The over-arching goal is to further “own” the continent’s growth, as it seeks to reduce its exposure to external market turbulence, but having remarkably been in a similar position decades ago, it is a mission that requires a fresh new approach.

The issue of global shocks dominated the 1990s, following the so-called “lost decade” of the 1980s, when commodity price volatilities hit home hard, creating a debt trap that the continent struggled to recover from.

The effort led to new approaches such as the retooling of the Organisation of African Unity to deal with emerging challenges and push regional integration as a means of insulating the continent.

But as commodity prices rose and the money rolled in, the push lost steam as national plans took precedence. This tailwind was further aided by an IMF-World Bank programme launched in 1996 that has to date approved $76 billion in external debt relief for 36 of the world’s heavily indebted poor nations, 30 of which are in Africa.

It could be déjà vu again. Commodity prices have been hard-hit after years of fast-paced growth, creating fears of a new debt trap.

“We must ensure we do not fall again into the debt trap,” African Development Bank (AfDB) president Akinwumi Adesina warned at a conference of business leaders in Abidjan mid this month.

Read: 20 years after all was forgiven, debt demon looms again over Africa as commodities crash

As a result, the continent is again taking on sustainable growth, with additional focus on more rapid integration.

The fear is that if the two development plans are not tightly welded to each other, Africa’s  50-year development plan, so memorably articulated by outgoing AU commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s ‘email from the future’,  may be shunted aside.

This is borne out of the experiences of the past, where African growth blueprints have tended to be shadowed by western-led plans. For example, in the wake of a clutch of pan-African responses to the Cold-war instigated slowdown in growth such as the Lagos Plan of Action and the Monrovia Declaration in the 1970s, the World Bank came out with its Berg Report of 1981, which essentially wrote off the continent’s prospects and accelerated the much-debated structural adjustment reports.

Awkward numbers

But the numbers may have put the size of the task into perspective. AU member states foot the bill for only 10% of the bloc’s programmes, according to the bloc’s own figures, with the rest funded by key external partners such the World Bank, United States, Asia and the European Union.

The latter for example accounts for 60% of the AU’s budget.

Read: 12 facts proud Africans don’t want to know about the AU’s cash situation - but we’ll tell you anyway

In the meetings, the continent is hoping to follow in the path of Asian countries such as China by creating pan-African financial institutions, though it is not immediately clear how it would supplement existing lenders such as the African Development Bank.

The bloc is also calling for “innovative” ways of financing development domestically—but sometimes the answers can often be in plain sight—Nigeria for example in 2013 collected just 1.6% of its GDP from tax revenue.

But as Dlamini-Zuma wrote in her letter, planning 50 years ahead is never short of challenges, the resolution of which sometimes requires “crazy” thinking—and doing.

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