Is Africa Coming Back?

NAMIBIA: A few years ago, Africa was simply off the global economic map. Aside from a few investments in oil in Nigeria and Angola, Africa received almost no private capital flows from the rest of the world. Trade stagnated. The continent appeared in continuous turmoil. African businessmen and political leaders rarely participated in international economic conferences.

Suddenly, change is in the air. Africa’s new generation of leaders, from Yoweri Museveni in Uganda to Festus Mogae in Botswana to Joaquim Chissano in Mozambique to Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki in South Africa are keen on leading their economies back into the global economy. They are savvy, business oriented, and eager for foreign investments. President Clinton’s trip to Africa highlighted to Americans -- usually most neglectful of Africa except when in deep crisis -- the dramatic changes underway on the continent. And at this year’s World Economic Forum Summit in Southern Africa, nearly 900 leading businessmen from the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa, met with the new political leadership to map a way forward.

Of course intentions and results are two different matters. Africa has a long road ahead. It is on most measures, several decades, if not a century or more, behind the advanced economies in economic organization and level of income. After centuries of enslavement and colonial rule, and decades of economic mismanagement or internal conflict, can Africa stage a rapid comeback?

For many interesting reasons, the answer could well be yes. Changes in technology permit a remarkable leapfrogging in economic activity. Countries almost without any telephone lines until recently are now jumping straight to cellular and microwave transmission. At the World Economic Forum meetings, summit participants enjoyed a dinner at a game reserve in the Namibian hinterland, while by the dozens clutching their cellular phones and transacting business all over the world. Internet connections in Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and many other parts of the continent are connecting universities, businesses, and even distant villages to global information and markets. Advanced systems similar to telecomms can be found in other core infrastructure areas. We are likely to see African technological leapfrogging in government organization (e.g. the efficiency of the payments and settlements systems in Southern Africa), road networks, power grids, air travel, and other parts of the critical economic "plumbing" necessary for a modern economy and for rapid growth in Africa’s living standards.