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by Louis S. Segesvary, Ph.D.

To entice tourists and quell the fears of the naïve, Africa is often presented in travel books as a magical destination, where sweeping savannahs and imposing mountain ranges serve as a backdrop to an exotic assortment of vegetation and wildlife and lithe men and women with rhythm in their veins and dancing in their feet.

Of course, in these agreeable books little or no effort is made to acknowledge the less pleasant scenes of endemic poverty and sporadic violence that disfigure the physical landscape with endless rows of flimsy shanties and piles of garbage in its cities while weighing down its people with wounds so brutal and burdens so great they are hardly imaginable in today’s industrialized world.

For when we take an honest look at Africa today, we see a vast region of nearly 12 million square miles with a population of well over one billion people that despite its extensive natural and wildlife resources and cultivable land is far from realizing its economic and social promise.

And when we consider that the median age of its youthful population spread out over 50 nations is astonishingly low at some 20 years, it is only natural to wonder what trends lie in store for this generation of Africans, as disparate as they are, and those to follow.

In taking a more watchful look at Africa, at its borders and coastlines, we can catch a glimpse of one such trend, a disturbing trend, which is receiving scant attention in the public domain. For among the many hundreds of thousands of migrants setting out on rickety boats and dangerous overland routes to European destinations, there are increasing numbers of native born Africans.

Notwithstanding the encouragement extended to migrants from some European leaders, they face increasingly uncertain fates. To stem the tide of Africans seeking to enter Switzerland illegally, for example, Swiss authorities expelled over four thousand would be migrants in July of 2016, with most of them coming from the African nations of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, and Nigeria. Others, including those from Somalia, were stuck for many months in a makeshift camp in Calais, France, near the Eurotunnel, and denied entrance to Great Britain.

But unlike the refugees from Syria, most of these African migrants are not fleeing internecine warfare but extreme poverty. According to the IMF, the 2016 GDP per capita estimate for Eritrea was only $771 per annum; for Ethiopia $739; for Gambia $435; and for Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country with major petroleum reserves, it was $2,930, or around $244 a month.

A World Bank study documented a distressing history of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, noting that from 1993 to 2008 the average per capita income of sub-Saharan African economies “almost did not grow at all,” only increasing from $742 to $762 per year. And if South Africa and the Seychelles are excluded, there was actually a decline from $608 to $556 over the period.

According to a comprehensive report prepared by the African Development Bank Group, the number of impoverished people in sub-Saharan Africa had doubled from 1981 to 1998, with the number of people living on less than US $1 per day in the region, “reaching 290 million in 1998, which is over 46% of the total population.”

In surveying the region’s recent economic scene, the Economist succinctly concluded that “global poverty is increasingly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Not surprisingly, African sentiment to leave the continent and seek a better life elsewhere has been growing dramatically. A survey conducted by Gallup of 135 countries between 2007 and 2009 found that residents of sub-Saharan Africa were “most likely to express a desire to move abroad permanently. Thirty-eight percent of the adult population in the region—or an estimated 165 million—say they would like to do this if the opportunity arises.”

In comparison, Gallup reported that residents in Asian countries were “the least likely to say they would like to move—with 10% of the adult population, or roughly 250 million, expressing a desire to migrate permanently.”

Current indicators suggest that the number of Africans wishing to leave the continent is not by any means diminishing despite the very real dangers associated with migration. The coast of Libya has been a favored departure point for boats loaded to the tipping point by smugglers with would be African migrants, even though more than 2,000 perished in the high seas in this year alone according to the International Organization for Migration. And now, compounding one misery with another, a crackdown by Coast Guard authorities in Libya has resulted in stranded Africans auctioned off as slaves by smugglers, drawing international outrage.

While the poverty driving emigration from Africa remains endemic, with the United Nations’ Human Development Report for 2016 ranking 16 African nations in a row at the very bottom, there has also been some noteworthy economic growth. As the African Development Bank Group has reported, “in the 2000s, six of the world’s ten fastest-growth countries were in Africa.”

But the bank also warns that this has “not significantly helped to equal incomes or to redistribute wealth.”

The problem is that most of what Africa has been exporting to achieve growth are what can be called primary products, for which there has been considerable demand, and not finished value-added products. Nor has the demonstrated growth in the service sector helped to decrease unemployment and alleviate poverty.

Overall economic conditions in the sub-Saharan region remain problematical as a consequence. The World Bank has projected regional growth of 2.6% for 2017, but this follows a poor performance in 2016, when growth registered “the worst decline in more than two decades,” slowed by poor outcomes in Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa, although Mali and Ivory Coast grew by more than six percent.

All this underscores the overwhelming economic challenge that Africa continues to face in spite of many billions of dollars in foreign assistance during the last fifty years of independence since colonial times. For in spite of best intentions, this assistance has not brought about the levels of sustainable development needed to match the dramatic growth of its population, which the United Nations projects to double to 2.4 billion by the year 2050.

As a result of the lack of development, U.S. trade in goods with Africa has been limited. While Africa ran modest surpluses in trade with the United States in 2013 and in 2016, what is of concern is the total amount of exports and imports with Africa on which they are based.

Total U.S. export and import numbers with Africa in 2016 were only $48.8 billion. This is a paltry number for a trading relationship with a continent containing 54 sovereign states and some 16% of the population of the entire world.

American trade in goods with the 28-nation European Union, for example, with half of Africa’s population at 510 million, was calculated by the Census Bureau at $686 billion for 2016.

These statistics underscore the enormous room to build our trade relationship with Africa, benefiting the peoples of that continent and our own.

But as noted, they also underscore the limited purchasing ability of many African countries to buy our exports.

Our challenge is to build on the programs already in place to change the dynamics of this trade equation in a way that significantly benefits both American and African commerce.

That means promoting the growth of Africa’s economy and its capacity to both import and export. As Africa’s combined GDP expands, so does its purchasing power and so does the variety of its exports, especially more highly processed value-added goods, which go beyond basic agricultural and extractive products and expand a skilled, higher paid workforce.

Already, according to the Department of Commerce, U.S. exports of goods to sub-Saharan Africa countries supported an estimated 121 thousand jobs in 2014.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted in 2000, and overseen by the U.S. Trade Representative, has been a significant boost to Africa’s economic development by creating trade preferences for eligible countries that make progress toward market-based economies.

Another constructive step has been the Power Africa initiative, launched in 2013 to address one of the region’s major infrastructural deficits, which is electrification. Two-thirds of the sub-Saharan African population lacks access to electricity, a lack that can halt business development in its tracks. While the electrification achieved in this initiative has been slow in coming, it represents a critical effort engaging both the private and public sectors.

There is also the Trade Africa initiative, a new partnership between the United States and sub-Saharan African countries announced in 2013, with the expressed goal of doubling intra-regional trade in East Africa while increasing its exports to the United States.

All this is good. All this is positive. And all this contributes to creating the necessary conditions for economic growth and development on the continent.

But as is well known, these efforts play out against the challenges associated with endemic poverty, including food insecurity and disease. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2014/2015 some 153 million individuals in sub-Saharan Africa, about 26 percent of the population or one out of four individuals above 15 years of age, was “hungry but did not eat or went without eating for a whole day because there was not enough money or other resources for food.”

Furthermore, among the many diseases associated with poverty, Malaria, which is preventable and curable, nonetheless continues to disproportionately ravage Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2016 its 46-nation designated African region was home to 90% of the estimated 216 million cases of Malaria across the globe. And HIV/Aids continues to take a disproportionate toll as well in the region, accounting for nearly two-thirds of all new infections. Over 25 million people in Africa were living with HIV in 2016, according to WHO, and of the one million people who died from HIV related causes in the world, the largest percentage came from the continent.

Africa also continues to be plagued by widespread cases of lower respiratory tract infections, diarrheal disease, and stroke.

But it is not only food insecurity and disease that assail Africa. These challenges are exacerbated by the scourge of authoritarian so-called “big man” rule, cronyism, and corruption that continue to mar its social environment. Corrupt practices not only undermine every single one of the pillars of social and economic development and the rule of law in the region. They are also associated with repression, conflict, and instability.

We know what needs to be done, and one donor country after another has laid it out: building civic society and strengthening the rule of law, promoting democratic governance and institutions whenever possible, supporting a market economy, bolstering education and health, bringing full electrification, and, of course, curbing corruption.

For corruption has been one of the main reasons the growth of the African economy has failed to keep up with the dramatic increases in population, driving increasing millions into lives of desperate poverty, while “big men” salt away millions, in some instances even billions, in private foreign bank accounts.

The African Union itself has provided a window into the extent of the corruption in Africa, estimating in recent years that 25% of the region’s GDP, nearly $150 billion, is lost due to corruption.

It is here in this continent, after all, where alongside its raw beauty and native cultural charms that the African “big man” emerged in many of the former British, French, and Belgian territories to replace sometimes repressive colonial governors. The “big man” wasted no time in creating his legacy, whether it was in the Congo, Uganda, Liberia, or Zimbabwe, which was a level of corruption and cronyism that in some cases has set back social and economic development by decades.

All one has to do is look at Zimbabwe, which was once a regional breadbasket. After being ruled for more than 37 years by the onetime revolutionary and longtime autocrat Robert Mugabe, the former colony is now economically bankrupt, with unemployment approaching 90%. When he was finally removed from office by his own party in November of this year at 93 years of age, the population erupted in joyful celebration and anticipation of a better future.

Regrettably, the number of countries on the continent plagued by corrupt practices is more extensive than is generally known. According to non-partisan Transparency International, of the bottom 25 countries in the world listed in its 2016 corruption index, 14 of them, that is more than half, belong to continental Africa.

When we consider how corruption discourages private investment, it is not hard to see why Africa, in spite of its resources and hard-working people, is not growing economically as it should.

To be sure, when we engage governments in Africa, our embassies and development organizations have no tolerance for corruption and understand all too well its damaging effects on both the public and private sector. But given Africa’s economic challenges, it is more incumbent on us than ever to do all we can to choke it at its root.

This means keeping in place the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits American companies from doling out bribes to foreign officials to make business deals.

But this also means we need to be nothing less than uncompromising in managing our aid policies in a zero-tolerance manner that even the small-minded “big men” will more readily understand.

We don’t have to shout from the roof tops or issue weekly press releases to make our point, which only has the undesired effect of publicly humiliating African leaders and officials.

We can make our point in the most effective way possible, by withholding funding whenever there is the least trace of corruption. That is a language easily understood. And to the extent that development officials do this already, so much the better. They deserve our gratitude and applause.

Americans are a generous people, and since sub-Saharan Africa gained independence from the colonial powers in the 1960s, we in the United States have provided the region with billions and billions of dollars’ worth of foreign aid. In fact, as USAID reports, in the 15 years from 2001-2015, we have disbursed over $88 billion in foreign assistance to sub-Saharan countries.

This shows that the American people care. Yet we have to remain prudent in how we dispense our aid, including disaster assistance.

Because if there is one thing that some $900 billion dollars or more in total world assistance donated to Africa since the 1960s has shown, it is that aid does not automatically translate into economic and social development. It can stave off hunger. It can alleviate natural disasters. It can help fight disease. And it can help maintain basic infrastructure.

But it has not been shown to substantially alleviate widespread poverty or engender the kind of pervasive, robust economic growth that lasts.

In fact, a case can be made that all this aid has contributed to fostering a culture of dependency in which foreign aid grants become a form of entitlements that governments rely on to maintain a status quo, as opposed to attracting the type of private sector investments that grow economies.

Some economists go as far as to maintain that Africa already has the abundant resources to extricate itself from poverty. What it lacks are the viable institutions to create wealth and prosperity from these resources.

And one prominent African economist even suggests that if foreign aid were stopped, it is the political elites who would be the first casualties.

Still others would stress that the international community has an obligation to reverse the negative trends set in place after the recent global economic crisis.

Admittedly, there is a delicate balance to be struck here between our natural charitable impulse to help impoverished nations and the tough love required to build self-reliance.

This will remain one of the main challenges that any U.S. administration has to face.

Our money must be spent wisely as any money not allocated carefully could become foreign aid that winds up lining the pockets of corrupt African leaders or furthers a culture of dependency that goes nowhere.

Although cost-savings goals are already largely established, it would be desirable to build further on those efforts and continue to draw on the most talented experts available who can introduce new approaches and practical ideas for the coming years.

Wise and constructive engagement with Africa should also include building relationships of amity and not rivalry with other nations. That includes China, which is heavily invested in the continent. We should have no quarrel with the Chinese when they say, as they did recently, that “Africa belongs to the African people and African affairs should be decided by the African people.”

Our goal should be to work together with other countries as productively as possible in bringing the prosperity to Africa to which its citizens, as much as our own citizens, aspire.

There is too much at stake for both Africans and Americans not to do all we can to improve the conditions that allow for an extensive increase in mutually beneficial trade. For Africans, it means an improved standard of living and a curbing of the brain drain robbing the continent of its best and brightest. For us, it means new markets for our manufacturing base, which has shriveled over the past decades.

But we need not be too discouraged at the challenge before us, for Africa is much more than its economic problems and struggles. One need not be an adherent to any religious doctrine to appreciate the sociological significance of a growing, nurturing faith community in the region helping to humanize its culture and building the character of its people.

For if it is a given that strong, incorruptible institutions are the pillars of meaningful civic and economic development, it is the culture from which they emerge which will lead to their success or failure. The equation could not be simpler yet more profound. To the extent the prevalent culture produces leaders of character, to that extent will the institutions they manage succeed.

The sometimes-hidden landscape of Africa, one that is seldom showcased in the public domain, reveals a faith community growing with extraordinary rapidity whose values correspond to the integrity on which responsible leadership and good governance must be based. From only nine million Christians in Africa at the turn of the century, for example, there are now close to 500 million. In fact, it is not at all unreasonable to expect, as statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia suggest, that the number of Christians will grow to well over 600 million by the year 2025.

In the meanwhile, Islam, which has existed in parts of the continent of Africa for so long that it can be considered a traditional African religion along with animism, is riven by the struggle between its moderate and extremist factions. And though with over 400 million adherents Islam has a major presence in Northern Africa, Horn of Africa, and the Swahili Coast, it has not exerted the same kind of evangelizing power throughout sub-Saharan Africa as has Christianity, with evangelists such as Reinhard Bonnke from Germany drawing gatherings of as many as 1,600,000 people for single meetings, “using towering sound systems that can be heard for miles.”

While the growth of the faith community in Africa is contributing to shaping strong and viable institutions, it is also leading to another, less understood psychological transformation. For contrary to the once widely practiced animism that is gradually being given up, which in its more negative aspects can breed fear of the surrounding world, the increasingly popular Christian religion teaches empowerment and dominion of creation. The result is a greater sense of what can be called intentionality in dealing with the world.

Kenyan scholar George Kinoti understood this well, when in his classic work, Hope for Africa, he expresses his faith in a God that “has in a very real sense placed our destiny in our hands. He has given us the natural resources, the energy, the intelligence, and the moral capacity we require to build a society in which everyone can live in peace and dignity.”

This kind of self-confident approach can be clearly seen in the case of the magnificent new airport built in Senegal. Its modern lines, sleek corridors, and advanced technology are as much a result of confidence on the part of African leaders believing they can oversee such a complex project to completion as it is the result of a close and transparent working relationship with their global financial and technical partners.

As for creating conditions for peace, other scholars from Africa, such as Theodore Jateng of Cameroon, emphasize that it will take nothing less than loving others, not as a superficial, saccharine sentiment but as a resolute decision in favor of one’s fellow man regardless of tribal affiliation, in order to dispel the scenes of genocide that have haunted Africa in recent years, most appallingly in Rwanda in 1994. There, tribal, internecine warfare became a zero-sum game, in which the annihilation of a rival ethnic community playing itself out to the last man, woman, and child became the goal.

One does not have to be religious to see that the growth of the faith community is proving to be a meaningful antidote to the ethnic hatred driving such killing fields, even if not widely acknowledged outside Africa. The extraordinary assemblies in recent years of more than a million worshippers at a time in such multi-tribal nations as Nigeria point to a deepening sense of shared compassion and humanity in Africa’s diverse ethnic groups.

It is also a strong antidote to the feelings expressed on some occasions by Africans themselves that their continent is cursed.

If we then take another look at the pretty scenes offered in the travel magazines, we can see that they may not be as disingenuous as they would seem on first glance. Complementing the beauty and majestic power of the continent’s natural landscape are the energy, courage, and devotion of its people dispersed through hundreds of distinct ethnic communities that often cross the national borders laid down by the colonial powers. And it is there, in each tribal community, that the region’s defining struggle to achieve modernity is now taking place, in a reciprocal duality of inner and outer transformation.

How well this writer remembers a brilliant sun-drenched day in Tanzania as I was on my way to see Kilimanjaro with my lovely musician wife and our fine young boy. Our creaky four-wheel drive pitched and rolled, over one crater and washed-out gully after another, its whining motor keeping time with every shake and rattle, when this massive mountain suddenly loomed in the horizon, a sight so majestic it can turn groans into sighs of wonder.

There Kilimanjaro was—towering, snow-capped power emerging from a hot and dusty land, the destination point of our pockmarked highway. And now in retrospect, after recalling that scene many times, I know what it means. Africa is that road, and that grand mountain represents its hope.

It is a hope that is available to Africans and well-wishers alike.End.


Author Dr. Louis S. Segesvary, the author, is a retired FSO who served as Counselor for Public Policy in the Africa Bureau at the State Department from 1998-2000. An abridged version of this article was presented as a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in September of 2016.


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