Sunday, 27 May 2012

'Distance is no justification for being less concerned'

Gordon Brown in full flow - impatient, passionate and ambitious. 

Gordon Brown spoke at the Royal African Society Business Breakfast with the drive of a man with much to say about Africa, the World and continuing inequalities within it. He delivered an impassioned barnstormer of a speech which belied the somewhat diminished figure who stumbled out of power just over a year ago.

According to Brown, the global financial system is not in good shape, and global growth continues to structurally marginalise poor countries. However, Africa has performed well in recent years with growth rates exceeding those of the developed world. Brown quoted Ngozi Iweala – Nigerian managing director of the World Bank – who now makes the argument for the Sub-Saharan African continental economy to be recognised as comparable to that of the existing BRIC states (Brazil, India, China – and now South Africa). She envisions a future of ‘African lions and lionesses’ rather than ‘Asian tigers.’

In this success he paid tribute to those companies that have invested in African markets, and commented upon the steady rise of inter-African and South-South trade. Particularly important in the latter phenomenon is the rise of the Asian economies, whose drive for economic development (notably that of China) has seen them invest heavily in African commodities and the infrastructure necessary for their extraction. The major questions for western investment in Africa remain political.

Whilst Brown recognises improved economic performance in Africa, he drew our attention to ‘the other side of the picture.’ His worries are concerned with the stability of this growth. Growth for the next 20 years will continue to be strong in developing African economies. In addition, Asian and African consuming power will expand, driven by the growth of middle class spending power. But large numbers of people will remain in poverty. The majority of the working population will be without educational qualifications and jobs.

Rising African populations (currently 15 percent of the world’s population, and growing to over 20 percent in the next 2 decades) still only receive 1 – 2 percent of the world’s investment, and produce 1 -2 percent of the world’s wealth.

On education and health Brown was most strident in his conviction that we can tackle global inequalities. Having advanced in the last decades, the number of children in school is now going into reverse. We must ‘train a million teachers, and build a million classrooms’, using technology more effectively to open up the world through computers.

Brown categorically asserted than we cannot tolerate a situation in which the expenditure on a child’s education in, for example, the US amounts to $100,000, whilst in Africa it is around $300.

He quoted further stark statistics regarding healthcare – in Nigeria there is one doctor per 39,000 people compared to 1 doctor per 39 people in the US. Inequity in healthcare provision in Africa is compounded by the continent having the heaviest disease burden.

Such facts illustrate the dramatic difference between Africa and the West. The Millennium Development Goals will not be achieved within any area even a century after they were implemented.

Despite some progress having been made, the gap in opportunities remains wide. According to Brown, economic empowerment is the issue.

Investment in infrastructure can greatly increase growth rates. However, there remains a huge infrastructure ‘gap’ in Africa preventing effective power supply to business, goods getting to market and further trade developing.

There is however no mechanism for solving problems of this scale. To develop solutions, we need to see them as cross border challenges. Innovative sources of finance must be explored with the World Bank taking a lead.

There is also huge economic gain to be made from technology – particularly broadband internet provision, which can help communities leap a generation in communication and education by opening up the resources of the internet to even the remotest communities.

The developed world made promises through the Millennium Development Goals. Brown stated that ‘we must honour these promises, and as global citizens, take seriously our responsibilities.’

‘Distance in not a justification for being less concerned…Empowerment not charity, economic development not aid.’