For most of my first term as Prime Minister, bad news about Africa was all I heard. Brutal conflict engulfed Sierra Leone and Liberia. Rwanda was emerging from a genocide that had decimated its population. It was the era of Drop the Debt: petitions and letters piled up in Downing Street for the campaign. As ever, the British public gave their support generously, but perhaps with a sense that the problems were intractable, that this was the same old African story.
But I was always an optimist about Africa. I believed that things would and could be different. Now, 15 years later, they are. Africa is on the move. And to keep up with a changing Africa we need new thinking and new approaches.
Africa’s economies are booming. Over the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African. In eight of the past ten years, sub-Saharan Africa has grown faster than East Asia. Aid has helped: the doubling of aid to Africa that I championed at Gleneagles in 2005 has strengthened, not stymied Africa’s progress. Africa has seen the largest recent turnaround in poverty of any region, malaria rates have fallen by a fifth in the past decade, and rates of HIV-Aids have plummeted.
The debt relief campaign has liberated African economies from the burden of indebtedness, allowing them to compete globally. Government funds that once went to service debt now go on public services. In Nigeria, a country of 170 million people, 70 per cent of whom live on less than $1.25 a day, the millions saved have been piled back into healthcare, with vaccination levels rising from 10 per cent to 65 per cent in places. Thousands of lives have been saved each year. And the progress on malaria, Aids and measles is spread right across the continent.
Africa is also benefiting from the movement of capital, skills, and technology, particularly from the new economic powerhouses of China, Brazil and India; taking the best of what has been learnt the hard way by West and East and applying it from Maputo to Monrovia.
However, the main thing changing Africa is Africa itself. There is one indispensable thing that cannot be imported: government. Here, too, things have improved. The number of democracies in sub-Saharan Africa has skyrocketed from three in 1989 to 23 in 2008. Since 1991, African governments have been defeated at the ballot box 30 times. Between the 1960s and 1991 that happened only once. To seize this moment, African governments across the continent must step up to lead the way. I see a new generation of leaders emerging, ready to take their countries’ destinies into their own hands, no longer dependent on outside assistance. This is achievable. I believe that we can end African countries’ dependence on aid within a generation. But it will need a new approach, a new partnership between developed and developing world.
This new approach has three elements. First, African governments need the capacity to deliver tangible results for their citizens. Democracy is spreading and deepening across the continent, but too often democratically elected leaders come to power on a wave of popular enthusiasm only to find that they lack the government institutions to implement the changes their people expect. African governments must be supported to build the systems and institutions they need to get things done. I set up my charity, the Africa Governance Initiative, which now has projects in five countries, to provide exactly that support, but the lesson is much wider and should become integral to our approach to development.
Second, Africa needs a vibrant private sector. Development will only become self-sustaining when it is based on a private sector that creates jobs, opportunities and incomes. And the private sector can only thrive when the right infrastructure is in place: roads to bring goods to market; airports and ports to enable trade; and behind all this, power to switch on the lights to make commerce possible. These aren’t new points. But, as Bill Gates told G20 leaders last year, infrastructure development must be prioritised, by African governments and their partners.
Third, we need a new way of rich and poor countries working together. The old way, where the rich world gives and the poor world passively receives, is an anachronism. African countries must be in the driving seat of their own development, setting priorities and making decisions. Where aid is needed, it should get behind these priorities to strengthen governments’ own systems.
These changes in how we work with Africa are necessary. But perhaps the biggest change that is needed is less tangible: a change in our expectations. Too often when we think of Africa we conjure up outdated images of a generation ago. In trying to galvanise global support for aid, I admit I played my part in this, characterising Africa as a scar on the conscience of the world. But Africa today is moving forward at a dizzying pace; our attitudes, how we think of, and talk about Africa must keep pace. I look forward to the day when people open a newspaper to read about African entrepreneurs creating jobs, African researchers developing breakthrough technologies, African elections running smoothly and think ... this is the way I expect it to be.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.