Spain: looking ahead to the African Century

I am a great believer in Africa. In 2010 a study by the McKinsey Global Institute stated that six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies in the previous decade were not in Asia but on the African continent. Since then, my scepticism regarding an African economic miracle has gradually started to fade away.

Ethiopia is one of the best examples of impressive economic growth. It labels itself the fastest-growing non-oil producing African nation, mainly because of its agricultural modernisation and development of new export sectors. I had the opportunity to talk about Ethiopia’s success with Berhane Gebre-Christos, the country’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, during a working breakfast hosted by the Elcano Royal Institute.

Ethiopia operates a state-led economy and is prioritising investment in infrastructure as it seeks to transform itself into a middle-income nation by 2025. At the same time, it has to face security concerns in the Horn of Africa, a terrorist threat and a highly tense relationship with Eritrea. Tension with Egypt has arisen over the building of a new dam on the Blue Nile, and thousands of protesters have demonstrated in the Ethiopian capital to demand freedom and justice.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia is still making durable progress. Like other African countries it is negotiating and receiving huge investments from the world’s emerging economies. But where are the Americans and the Europeans (including Spain)? This question is often asked by Africans across the continent.

The standard Western images of Africa –war, famine and dictators– must be overhauled. Optimism about Africa’s prospects is not new but the changes today are different from those in the past. African incomes are rising and cities are growing, while an emerging urban consumer class is demanding a better diet and the latest in mobile phones. There are tremendous changes in a whole range of factors that are influencing civil society: for instance, in how people are organising themselves and in how they are communicating with their governments. But more than anything else, there is a new generation of young leaders, both in business and politics, from across the continent with a new discourse on African development. Their call is to follow an era of burdens and aid with one of investment and trade. States will attract investors only if they are able to improve the investment climate, strengthen the rule of law and cut back corruption –and this is where the West can help with policy advice, training and technology–. Is this less heroic than aid?

Of course, Africa is facing daunting challenges. For every Ethiopia, there is a Chad that is mired in the past, or a Nigeria, with a torrent of oil money fuelling corrupt political practices. But the continent is very diverse and has a lot going for it. Furthermore, this week President Obama will be visiting three African countries: Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. How significant will his tour be? Having Obama there for a week will generate a lot of publicity and attention and Africa’s leaders will seek to get the foreign private sector to take a greater interest in the continent.

Spain must join the increasing number of those who recognise that Africa has the potential to be transformed. As Berhane Gebre-Christos emphasised: ‘Spain has great opportunities and capabilities in Africa’. Do you think that now is the time for Spain in Africa? I do.