If there’s a silver lining to the dark clouds hanging over the global economy it might be the sense that we are all - developed and developing world alike - in this together. Gallup’s first-ever world poll, published in 2007 and canvassing the views of citizens in over 130 countries, found that “what the whole world wants is a good job”. If anything, such a concern can have only risen further in the wake of the economic crisis and the recession-bordering-on-depression that has followed.
True, there are countervailing tendencies such as a retreat into national concerns and the temptations of protectionism. But in a larger and historical perspective, it is clear that the chief daily concerns of citizens across the world are becoming more similar rather than diverging.
A speech delivered in April 2010 by the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick - entitled “The End of the Third World?” is relevant here. Zoellick argues that the great transformations of 1989 heralded the end of the “second world” (the communist states) and a shift from a bipolar to a unipolar world, whereas those of 2009 heralded the end of the “third world” and the rise of a multi-polar world economy. This is an economy in which leading developing countries such as China and India are becoming substantial economic powers, while the traditional heartlands of the global economy (the United States, western Europe and Japan) are relatively stagnant.
This economic story has southeast Asia - now a middle-income region of almost 600 million people - at its heart, according to Zoellick. But viewed through this multi-polar lens, other regions (parts of the middle east, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries) are all increasingly significant. It is an argument that has even more relevance in the context of the continued financial crisis in the eurozone and the uprisings in the Arab world in 2010-11.
Africa in the world
Africa too should not be forgotten as another pole of growth in this emerging multi-polar world. It is true that subsistence agriculture undertaken by rural populations still accounts for much of the GDP of many sub-Saharan African economies, and that the region faces many challenges in expanding and diversifying its economic base. But there has also been great (if very uneven) economic change over much of the continent, as analysts such as Stephen Ellis emphasise. There is even more potential, for as costs (including wages) are rising fast in Asia it could be that Africa could move to the next stage by competing to become the next big destination for basic manufacturing which could help supply the jobs millions of Africans coming on to the labour market need.
It sounds far-fetched. For it to happen, Africa would have to unshackle its private sector, move away from predation on its wealth-creators, embrace a new era of entrepreneurship, support growth-oriented and job-creating small and medium-sized enterprises, and upgrade its infrastructure. Even more fundamentally, it would need sound institutions that uphold the rule of law, the absence of which at present constrains all three sources of private investment - domestic, foreign, and diaspora.
But looked at in another way, a move in this direction could be closer than many think, especially if the role of the diaspora is taken into account. Both as entrepreneurs in their own right and as investors, members of the African diaspora are an important resource. For instance, World Bank estimates (admittedly preliminary and tentative, and doubtless in need of revision) suggest that the sub-Saharan diaspora has made savings amounting to $30.4 billion; and that for Africa as a whole (i.e. including north Africa) nearly $53 billion.
The scale of this funding combined with the depth of attachment and commitment Africans abroad retain for their homelands indicates how central they could be in the creation of public goods (such as much-needed infrastructure) in the continent - especially if African governments find creative ways that can attract some of the investment most needed.
The idea of a “diaspora bond” is one of these ways. India and Israel have already launched such an initiative; debt-burdened Greece - as it seeks to find space to manoeuvre amid its financial crisis - is also hoping to raise $3 billion from a planned diaspora bond; and many other countries, such as Italy and Scotland, are increasingly looking to their diasporas to help them boost their global competitiveness.
There is a powerful argument for Africa to embrace the notion as part of its effort finally to shake off its damaging image as a hopeless continent fit not for profit-oriented investment but only for charitable handouts from a benevolent “first world”. This project has both local (African) and global dimensions - and the latter includes forging a new social contract with its “development partners” (who too often behave like patrons), international NGOs and even the rock-star Afrophiles whose unholy alliance with the international media has done so much to shape public perceptions about Africa (see Michael Holman, "Africa: celebrity and salvation", 22 October 2006).
A new agenda
How could Africa do this? It could start by seizing the agenda of the annual G8 summits from its so-called friends. The run-up to these summits has become something of a ritual for “friends of Africa” to invoke the glory days of the “Make Poverty History” gathering of 2005 - a chance (as Bob Geldof wrote to Nicolas Sarkozy, host of both the G8 and G20 summits in 2011) to remind the “the eight most powerful men on the planet” of the “solemn pledge to the weakest” their predecessors made then. Such self-righteous hyperbole and earnest pleas on behalf of the continent too often work to reinforce the impression of millions of that Africans themselves are helpless and voiceless (see "African agency vs the aid industry", 5 July 2005).
African countries’ dependence on aid is undeniable. But it doesn’t follow that they should deepen their dependency. So, as part of their agenda-seizing effort, African leaders should make two bold pledges on development aid.
First, each African country should prepare a roadmap detailing when it intends to be completely aid-free and how it plans to get there - by itemising cuts in the aid it is prepared to accept, year-on-year all the way down to zero. This would be especially befitting in a period when so many African states are marking a half-century of formal independence from colonial rule (which has in so many cases not yet translated into real independence).
Second, and in the interim, while the aid spigot continues to spew, African governments and their peoples could squeeze much more productive use from aid. For a start, African governments - based on where they want to go, as opposed to where donors want to take them - could establish a marketplace for the ideas and resources needed to help them achieve their goals, and invite their “development partners” to compete to provide assistance in ways that play to donors’ respective strengths and interests.
By taking these steps, African governments would prioritise aid resources; recognise them as finite and not an entitlement for being poor; take ownership for delivering results; and create more space for Africans to solve their own problems. The aid relationship would as a result change from the anachronistic and tantrum-prone fiasco it is today to become much more a partnership of equals. Most African citizens would welcome this as a more dignified approach to their development, driven by their own sense of purpose and destiny.
If African governments stop acting in ways that create not just the image but the reality of dysfunction, they will change both the domestic and the international game. The result will be a new pact with their citizens (at home and in the diaspora) for “job-full” not jobless growth. This would also be progress towards making Africa a core component of the emerging global reality: neither first world nor second world, but our world.