NEW YORK – Africa is changing dramatically – and so are outsiders’ attitudes toward it, with the US finally seeming determined to catch up with China, Europe, and India in their interest in the continent. US President Barack Obama’s recent summit with 40 African heads of state and more than 200 US and African business leaders suggests a new, more confident mood. That is encouraging; but as long as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa continue to struggle with violent conflict, poverty, and corruption, the continent’s economic potential will not be fully realized.
Africa’s economic growth and commercial opportunities are exciting and enticing. The region’s 300 million-strong middle class is growing by more than 5% annually. The continent leads in mobile banking. Consumer spending per capita is close to Indian and Chinese levels. If foreign investment, in partnership with the continent’s vibrant private sector, can benefit key sectors – particularly education, health care, and infrastructure – Africa may gain the broad-based development boost that its people need.
But investment and growth – “Africa rising” – are only part of the story. There is also the Africa that is struggling, with conflict and crisis afflicting much of the continent, especially the tens of millions of people living in a belt of countries running from Mali to Somalia. Even before the recent Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali were at risk of joining a long list of fragile or failing states that already includes Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ethnic, religious, economic, and other forms of strife in these countries too often overshadow the objectives of effective governance and the delivery of the most basic services.
These countries come to the wider world’s attention – and then only briefly – following a mass killing or a refugee crisis. Then attention shifts, leaving problems to grow and living conditions to worsen. In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, political unity across ethnic lines was maintained during the fight for independence, but collapsed this year into violent conflict. Roughly 1.5 million people have now lost their homes, and 400,000 have fled to neighboring states.