At the moment, I am engaged in some significant research that will hopefully turn into a book and presentation sometime mid 2012. I am looking at the potential of sub Saharan Africa in the next two decades, and identifying the reasons why this region is poised to be the “next big thing”. That’s probably a good thing to reflect on especially on “Africa day” (25 May every year).

There are many factors in sub Saharan Africa’s favour:

  • huge natural resources, mainly untapped
  • growing population (and the world’s youngest)
  • roaring economies (the regional average is well above 5%, with 10 economies above 7% and a few in double digit growth)
  • budget surpluses and positive current accounts
  • burgeoning middle classes (fastest growing in the world)
  • improving infrastructure (and a voracious appetite for building new infrastructure)
  • thriving tourism (growing at three times the global average)
  • growing foreign investment (and not all Chinese – China accounts for only 3% of FDI in Africa)
  • improving maternal health
  • improving education (drive through any African village and you’ll see the cellphone shop and school taking pride of place)
  • increasing role of women in society and economic and political spheres
  • fewer wars (only two cross border conflicts and a few minor internal conflicts)
  • and improving governance.

(For more, read the excellent insights from the team at South Africa: The Good News on Africa Day).

It’s the final point that seems the most difficult to believe by those who remain sceptical of Africa’s Renaissance. Africa appears “dodgy”, riddled with corruption, and politically unstable.

Corruption mapWhile this needs to be acknowledged – there is corruption, and even well-governed African countries are nevertheless relatively fragile in their political systems – we need to keep these thoughts in context.

Here are just a few recent “corrective contexts” highlighting the fact that corruption exists throughout the world, and is not just a developing world issue:

  • Corruption is universal in political settings. A few recent examples really got to me. FIFA President Sepp Blatter has finally opened a corruption hearing in relation to allegations about vote rigging, corruption and bribery in recent votes taken by the World Football body. The primary focus of his investigations is… the man running against him for the job of President. That election takes place in a week’s time, and the investigation starts immediately. (Read more here). By the way, the man being investigated, Mohamed Bin Hammam, comes from Qatar, who were recently awarded host status for the 2018 World Cup. The official accusations in the case come from Chuck Blazer, a U.S. soccer official. Would it surprise you to know that Qatar beat out the USA for the 2018 World Cup rights in controversial circumstances? This is not an isolated example.
  • Meredith Attwell Baker was until recently a member of the powerful FCC in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission recently controversially ruled that it was acceptable for NBC and Comcast to merge into a mighty media monopoly. That move, earlier this year, went against decades of US policy in this area, but was approved after Atwell Baker fought strongly (and controversially) for it. She had only been on the Commission since mid 1999, but has announced her departure to take up a job at… you guessed it, the new NBCuniversal-Comcast company, where she will head up the department for government affairs (lobbying, in other words). (Read more about this story here). This is not an isolated example.
  • The UK will soon have a new anti-bribery law (read a report here). Many businesses opposed this law, especially the sections that make it illegal to bribe foreign governments and companies, claiming it would make British companies uncompetitive internationally (basically admitting that corruption and bribery are considered both “normal” and “essential” in international business). But there are two concerns: recent reports show that countries with anti bribery laws do not enforce them (read report here); and, Ken Clarke, the UK’s Justice Secretary promised a year ago to make it a priority to develop a strategy to combat corruption that is harming the world’s poorest countries. He has done nothing to date. (Read a report here, and sign a petition while you’re there).
  • It’s easy to be derisive about the personal morals of some of Africa’s leaders. I personally don’t like the polygamous marriages of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, nor his philandering, for example. But is he any different than Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who used to be the next President of France), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“President” governor of the world’s fifth largest economy), Fred Goodwin (ex head of RBS) or even Ryan Giggs (footballer)?

These items don’t make things better in Africa, but they remind us that the bar is not set incredibly high – and Africa is becoming more and more “normal” when judged by world standards of what is acceptable (or at least “survivable”). I’m not saying things are OK. Africa should always aim higher, and not be tempted to sink to the depths of “benchmarking” against the lowest common denominator, of course, but it’s probably good to be reminded that Africa is not “the dark continent” with no hope. Precisely the opposite, in fact. On aspects of governance, democracy, accountability, press freedom and corruption, most African countries are heading in the right direction and getting progressively better and better.

Africa should be held to a high standard. But not a higher standard than the rest of the world.

Corruption is not a developing world issue. It is a global issue. Issues of corruption should be dealt with. But they should not stop people from investing in Africa, or looking objectively at the good news coming out of this exciting continent.

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