The world’s wealthiest nations are calling 2005 the “Year of Africa.” They’re turning their attention, collectively and individually, to doing something about a continent they proclaim to be mired in poverty, H.I.V./AIDS, war and bad governance. Heads of state, business leaders, rock stars, philanthropists—everybody, it seems, has an Africa plan.
Yes, there’s a whole lot of buzz about that continent. Bzzzzzzz!
On the eve of the July 6-8 meeting in Scotland of the seven highly industrialized nations and Russia, the so-called G-8 nations, about 700 leaders, mostly from business, got together in Cape Town, South Africa, for three days of “frank and informal dialogue” about the major development challenges facing Africa. It was the 15th annual Africa Economic Summit, an initiative launched by the World Economic Forum to engage business as a catalyst for change on the continent. This is where the CEOs of the biggest and richest corporations operating in Africa lock horns with African heads of state and government ministers about how best business should execute its role as the “driver of Africa’s regeneration,” according to the summit.
The A.E.S. is not a place of action. Rather, it is another high-level talk fest whose words could lead to meaningful change if they are taken seriously by those who have the power to turn words into deeds. This time around, the focus in Cape Town was on the report from the Commission for Africa, the 17-member group set up by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in February 2004. Its mandate was to take a fresh look at the continent’s development a successes and ongoing challenges and come up with recommendations in time for the G-8 summit.
There’s a great deal of buzz about this report. Published in March, it calls on the G-8 to boost African efforts to improve governance and institution-building by doubling aid to the continent. Though no panacea, that aid would go a long way toward easing African constraints in trade, infrastructure and capacity. “It is the only plan that can provide the framework to improve Africa’s investment climate, address capacity constraints, mobilize financing for critical infrastructure development, boost health care systems and discuss the legislative environment that will help business flourish,” Haiko Alfeld, director for Africa at the World Economic Forum, declared.
It’s no surprise that African leaders have strongly endorsed the Commission’s report. (Sure, they’ll take the aid, though they’d much prefer the real bling: access to markets and debt cancellation). At stake in Cape Town was the business buy-in.
The A.E.S. was big business’s first opportunity to respond to the report. Pressure was intense to rally these “captains of industry” behind the report’s recommendations. By the end of the summit on June 3, South African President Thabo Mbeki had a list of more than 350 executives who had endorsed the report.
Unimpressed, the United States. is doing its own thing. At the White House, President Bush told Mbeki and Blair that the Commission’s plan does not “fit” with Washington’s budgetary process. Translation: There is no way Bush will ask Congress to double Africa’s aid in the next five years. Bush subsequently announced $600 million in emergency relief in Africa—no sweat; the money was in the pipeline anyway—mainly for famine relief in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
There’s another kind of buzz about Africa that made its way even into the Cape Town summit. There’s real bling to this buzz. Aimed more at your salt-of-the-earth, action-oriented entrepreneur, it has to do with branding the continent as a place that, says the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp., offers the highest return in the world on direct foreign investment. To that end, Carol Pineau, a journalist with more than 10 years of experience reporting on Africa, produced and directed a one-hour documentary entitled “Africa: Open for Business.” The film, which shows successful local and foreign entrepreneurstalking about why they invested in Africa, premiered in April at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“A business person is far more likely to pay attention to another business leader who is saying he is in Africa because it makes business sense,” reasons Millard W. Arnold Jr., director, Murray & Roberts, an engineering-design-construction firm in South Africa.
Yes, Africa has its share of woes, says Pineau in an April 17 Washington Post article. But it’s “also a land of stock markets, high rises, Internet cafes and a growing middle class. This is the part of Africa that functions. And this Africa also needs media attention, if it’s to have any chance of fully joining the global economy,” she says.
The Cape Town talks identified the African diaspora as “a brand-building opportunity” for business Africa. The hope is that, more than being brand ambassadors, Blacks outside Africa will bring home the bling.
By Rosalind McLymont