Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Africa Beyond Ebola

MADRID – Among this summer’s grave global worries, the spread of the Ebola virus has monopolized the discussion of Sub-Saharan Africa and reinvigorated hoary notions of disorder and despair – at a time when a new image of a dynamic Africa was emerging. In fact, there is still strong reason for optimism about the region’s prospects.

The Ebola outbreak overshadowed three key events affecting the region. On July 1, a major organizational restructuring at the World Bank Group was implemented. Two weeks later, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) announced the establishment of the New Development Bank. And, in early August, African government and business leaders gathered in Washington, DC, for a summit that could portend transformative private investment in Africa.

Such investment is essential in a world in which net private capital flows to developing countries outstrip official development assistance by a margin of ten to one. If this is to be a turning point for Africa, rather than another false dawn, this summer must be the start of a prolonged effort to stimulate private-sector engagement.

The reorganization of the World Bank is a central part of a larger effort under its president, Jim Yong Kim, to reposition the Bank as a facilitator vis-a-vis the private sector, rather than a primary provider. From 2009 to 2013, new investment commitments by the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector lending arm, have risen 73%. Meanwhile, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, the Bank’s provider of political risk insurance covering investments in developing countries, has moved to expand its activities, both by broadening the types of projects that it supports and widening existing definitions to allow greater coverage.

July’s restructuring occurs within the context of these broader moves. In reorganizing the World Bank Group’s central component, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Kim has adopted a management-consulting model that unites expertise with regional coverage. Seeking to eliminate the bureaucratic “silos” that have isolated regional experts from one another, 14 global practice groups in areas such as energy, water, and education have been established to bring to bear the full force of the World Bank’s considerable knowledge on projects and partnerships.

Just as the World Bank was repositioning itself, the BRICS agreed to establish their own bank. There are significant outstanding issues about how the New Development Bank will operate, but early indications suggest that infrastructure will be central to its activities, with an emphasis on Africa.

The World Bank estimates that insufficient infrastructure reduces productivity in Africa by approximately 40%. The entrance of a new player with initial authorized capital of $100 billion – along with the United States’ Power Africa program, which has garnered $26 billion in commitments since its launch last year, and the World Bank’s new Global Infrastructure Facility – promises to help ease infrastructure financing significantly.

But, as of now, the New Development Bank is little more than a statement of political solidarity, and whether it comes into existence remains to be seen. Even if it does begin to function, the BRICS lack what gives development banks, and the World Bank in particular, legitimacy and weight: a staff composed mostly of dedicated experts who are among the world’s best.

Finally, the high profile of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, with more than 40 heads of state in attendance, as well as President Barack Obama’s direct involvement, generated buzz about Africa. US businesses and investors certainly gained more awareness about Africa’s potential and a deeper understanding of the variety of investment climates throughout the continent.

But, though the summit may be called a success, its long-term implications are unclear, particularly given the uncertainty about what will follow. At the moment, there does not seem to be a plan to institutionalize the summit.

Moreover, the participation of so many heads of state overshadowed that of African business leaders. The practical connections that US companies will need when deciding whether to invest could have been cultivated on the summit’s margins, or in its aftermath, but were not. Laying a foundation for future engagement requires ongoing commitment and effort that goes beyond mere publicity.

The same could be said about the World Bank. There is much work to be done in integrating the new organizational model with existing Bank structures and practice areas. Even if this transition occurs seamlessly, the Bank faces a serious internal struggle against entrenched bureaucratic interests and a pervasive institutional mindset that is overly risk-averse and fixates on processes rather than outcomes.

In recent years, Africa, once a land of pity, has emerged as a land of opportunity. If it is to become a land of performance, the goal must be to facilitate investment, both domestic and foreign. That will demand effort and commitment; given that a stable international order increasingly depends on a prosperous and growing Africa, it is a goal that the world cannot afford to miss.

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