As at countless events on sub-Saharan Africa’s economy over the past two weeks, discussions at Harvard University’s March 23-24 9th annual “Africa Development Conference”—where I delivered a keynote address—were animated by the signing of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) agreement by 44 sub-Saharan African countries two days before. The theme at this year’s annual conference (organized by African students attending five Harvard graduate schools) was entitled “Our Time, Our Vision: Wielding Africa’s Potential for Sustainable Growth.” The vision came from the ambitious African Union “Agenda 2063,” the long-term regional development strategy adopted in early 2014.
Once again I was thrilled to be surrounded by hundreds of young, bright, optimistic African students—from Harvard and other New England universities—undoubtedly on their way to becoming the continent’s next generation of leaders. My first exposure to the group and the keynote address I made at their 2013 event left enough of an impression to make me pounce on their second invitation: I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to gauge the pulse of young Africans’ thinking on economic issues while sharing my (older more sobering) perspective. And indeed, coming as they did after loftier “we can do” presentations by other panelists, the messages I conveyed focused on four immediate challenges for the region while stressing the need to address debt vulnerabilities, increase domestic revenues, and foster diversification.
My first message concerned the foremost challenge of returning the region to a path of durable growth following the decline in per capita incomes in 2016 and the tepid 2017 upturn. The need for continued adjustment and reform was most urgent in oil exporters. But to safeguard debt sustainability, fiscal consolidation should be initiated in robustly growing countries as well.
I then moved to the challenge emanating from the region’s increased interconnectedness in recent years, a welcome development that the CFTA seeks to take further. I stressed the need for the three largest economies—Nigeria, South Africa, and Angola—to pursue more growth-friendly policies with the view to releasing positive rather than negative spillovers from greater interconnectedness and expanded trade.
The region’s high level of income and gender inequality was the third immediate challenge requiring action on several fronts but made difficult by politics and vested interests. Ownership at the highest political level was therefore essential to reduce such inequality and unleash the boost this could give to growth.
I then pointed to “bitter politics” and their adverse impact on economic policy leadership as the fourth challenge. Institution building was required to counter them but—as populist pressures in the United States and other advanced countries have shown—even strong institutions could find themselves on shaky ground. Safeguarding them required enduring and broad-based political engagement.
Recalling some of the underpinnings of the “Africa Rising” narrative, I qualified these messages with the observation that they did not necessarily imply doom and gloom. But the region had to better prepare itself to seize potential new opportunities in the global economy and successfully reap the “demographic dividend.”
In addition to policymakers’ responsibilities in moving this agenda forward I commented on the need for agility on the part of the region’s partners in responding to its evolving needs. I also stressed the need for China’s voice to be more strongly heard on the issue of continued policy adjustment in sub-Saharan African oil exporters—given its role as the largest creditor in several countries where debt is now unsustainable. And, not surprisingly, my final message concerning the region’s partners was the importance of advocating against growing protectionist and inward-looking policies in advanced countries.
Rather than the dart-throwing questions I had anticipated, these messages were well-received by a number of insightful comments and questions. Following my speech, the high energy level and “can do” perspective prevailed despite some soul-searching about why many sub-Saharan African politicians and policymakers continued blaming external factors but seldom their own timidity in tackling the many obstacles head-on. It all underscored the great value-added derived from listening to younger Africans on the road to Agenda 2063 and the CFTA that they will inhabit.