Thursday, May 25, 2006

Africa takes the lead

This should be Africa's century

By Bono

Africa is on a journey from charity to justice, off the nipple of aid and into an environment in which meeting the 0.7% of GDP target for aid promised at the Gleneagles summit can be seen as an investment in a new continent.

The old Africa is a picture of despair and appeals for emergency supplies; the new Africa is a picture of opportunity and the need for seedcorn capital to develop these chances into sustainable growth.

And it is Africans, not Europeans or Americans, who are leading this journey. There is a new generation of entrepreneurs in government, in civil society and in business. This is an entrepreneurial culture that is not just based on greed or wealth for the few but on a genuine desire to create jobs and move up the value-added chain in business; not just to grow cotton but to develop an apparel sector; to have not just commodities but made-in-Africa product lines in chocolate, coffee and, hopefully, mobile phones.

These past 10 days have been an education for me, and I have to admit that we may have, in the past, misread the scale of the problems and the proper response to them because commerce, which is something activists don't generally interest themselves in, is the critical player.

I feel that the arc of my own life as an activist is not unlike that of a lot of other people: we started off responding to a need, then started to be informed about what had caused that need, and then went on to discover that the response to that need was not exactly what we originally thought it was - and that the old brute of capitalism, if it could be tamed and made to serve the many, not the few, was going to be more than a bit player in the success or failure of the continent. That's a bit humbling.

Four years ago to the week, I was fighting with the US treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, about his interest in the stock market in Ghana and his interest in private enterprise as a solution to the problem. I have to admit that he was more than half right. But still, as President Kufuor of Ghana gently reminded us, without aid his people are not strong enough to compete; without investment in an educated population, his people may miss the excitement of the information age. In a way, his was the most balanced picture of aid leading to trade.

The first thing that came home to me in this trip is something I had always known but not fully felt: Africa is not a country - it's a continent wider and more diverse than either the European Union or the Americas, and there is no pan-African, single solution that can be applied to it. We need not be depressed by that, but rather be inspired to gang up on the problem from a lot of different directions.

Some countries - Lesotho, for example - need immediate injections of cash to deal with the Aids pandemic. Some landlocked countries, such as Rwanda, need an infrastructure to help them compete. Some countries in the early stages of development need to fight for reform of trade laws at the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation. (In Mali, for example, the cost of cotton on the world market can make or break the people). And other countries, Nigeria among them, need to follow the prescriptive advice of anti-corruption campaigners such as their finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, because levels of transparency will, in a very real way, be the measure of success.

One highlight of the trip was a fashion show in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, where factory workers, a third of them HIV positive, took to the catwalk with a new confidence because anti-retroviral drugs are being made available through the Global Fund (which combats Aids, tuberculosis and malaria) and other agencies. There is much less anger than I expected, given that these people were left out of debt cancellation. The workers came out wearing Product Red T-shirts made by Gap and One T-shirts made by Edun. That was special.

A second highlight was Mr Shah in Tanzania, an entrepreneur who, having built the first factory on the continent to supply long-lasting malaria bed nets, has reinvested his money in making polo shirts for export. He will treble output by the end of the year and double his 3,200-strong workforce.

A lowlight: I never want to see six people in a bed again, as I did in a clinic in Kigali; I never want to see hospital staff being stretched so far. Lowlight number two: the road into town from Bamako airport in Mali seemed to lead nowhere and offer no hope. Mind you, it's worth stating that this is a stable Muslim democracy and, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, has the most vibrant music scene and the most generous people.

I leave Africa optimistic that if we get out of the way, if we level the playing field in the trade talks, this could be not just the Chinese or the Indian century but also Africa's.

May 25, 2006 11:00 AM

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