Africa and the World: The Need to Match Perspectives

Silvia Fuselli
STAFF BLOGGER AT SAIS WASHINGTON

It’s 4 a.m. off the coast of Sicily. Five hundred people are aboard a ten-meter-long wooden fishing boat. Each paid two thousand dollars for a spot. The boat runs aground. In an attempt to call for help, the passengers set fire to a rag. The flames spread to the boat’s planks, and the vessel is lost. 130 confirmed casualties. 150 survivors. The rest, missing.

This ghastly episode is the latest to haunt southern Italy’s narrow coast. Over the past two decades more than twenty-five thousand migrants, mostly African, have braved similar voyages to Italy’s southern peninsula, a stopping point on their hopeful march towards Belgium, Denmark, or Germany.

The sea offers the dangerous path out of Africa and away from hunger, famine, and political turmoil. As such, only the most desperate migrants opt for this route towards survival. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Lampedusa’s passengers came from some of the most politically unstable, violent, and poor regions of the world: Syria, Somalia, and Eritrea.

Eritrea sadly holds a preeminent position in the world of migrant-exporting countries, offering easy access to both the Red Sea and the Suez Canal beyond. A decades-long dictatorship, involvement in the Somalia civil war, and an increasingly hostile relationship with Ethiopia have left the migrant-country laden country ever more unstable.

Although these migrant tragedies have crept onto its political agenda, the EU has yet to coordinate or deploy a proper response. These episodes lay bare the opaqueness of how the EU’s borders are defined. Migratory flows also pose a blatant security threat both for countries of destination and for those in the surrounding areas, so much so as to have prompted the Italian government to call for the EU Agency FRONTEX to intervene.

The disquieting picture painted so far is bound to bitterly grate against the more comforting and energizing perspective that Mr. Arif Naqvi, Founder and Group Chief Executive of The Abraaj Group, advanced during his lecture at SAIS DC on October 10th. The thrust of Mr. Naqvi’s speech was enclosed in his lecture’s title: “The Need to Shift Perspective: From Developing Nations to Growth Markets”. What followed was essentially an appeal to begin to look at “developing countries” no longer through the lens of security but rather as fresh markets that offer tantalizing opportunities for investors and business companies. Crucially, the world is undergoing sweeping socio-economic changes, “an inexorable shift, that neither politics nor demography are going to stop”. According to Mr. Naqvi, this process will alter the geography of demand and production globally to an incredible extent. Specifically, three focal driving forces for such transformation can be identified: massive urbanization, a rise in the middle-income class, and a change in the way that this incipient class perceives itself and lives.

Even more interestingly, among all of the developing countries, Africa stands in the limelight. Indeed, Africa’s population is forecasted to increase from 1 billion to 2 billion people in the near future, 60% of whom will be living in cities. By 2020, 600 million people will have moved to the upper-middle income class. What is most striking, though, is the age of population: Africa’s median age is 26 years. Age, indeed, is correlated to consumption: young people will be willing to invest in education, to build a family, to buy houses and cars. In Mr. Naqvi’s view, some African countries are no longer deserving of “developing countries” label in the face of their potential to revamp the global economic market. As such, we ought to abandon the traditional categories of security, aid, terrorism-related issues we consider when approaching these growth realities. Instead, we should take on a different prism, one more suitable to properly value the scope of these vibrant economies.

Yet it is not clear to me how to reconcile the unfolding of these megatrends with the current crude reality. Africa has yet to free itself from the shackles of a stagnant economic model that has prevented it from putting into concrete form two of the most fundamental mechanisms conducive to development: domestic industrial policy, and diversification of economic activities and trade patterns. Further, massive investment does not entail development, nor does development entail prosperity. Sure, there are promising oases in the desolate landscape of the African continent, but their achievements fade before the challenges that remain. While economists, investors and businessmen continue mulling over successful yet homogenizing strategies to make growth real, in Lampedusa they are still extracting bodies from the boat’s hold.