Discussions about Africa’s evolution tend to measure the continent’s ‘gradual’ assimilation into the global mainstream. This may have been understandable in the mid-1980s when by every indicator African economies were seen as hopelessly distorted and needed to be salvaged with what became known as ‘structural adjustment’. But African countries today appear more aligned with the Washington Consensus and Globalization’s ‘best practices’ than the West. On many of the macroeconomic indicators used to judge conformity with the mainstream – debt to GDP ratio, current account balance, fiscal balance, inflation – Africa is situated closer to the mainstream, while key OECD countries drift away. Data tracking other kinds of flows – in cultural, innovation, and labour flows – point to a continent becoming a key player in the Global South – not just assimilating into the global mainstream, but helping to shape it.
- Population flows – Stories of African migrants struggling to find a route to Europe contrast with recent reports that Europeans are struggling to find working permits in Africa. According to NYU’s Development Research Institute, between 2006 and 2009 the number of visas issued for Portuguese entering Angola increased from 156 to 23,000. In 2012, there were nearly 100,000 Portuguese living in Angola, more than triple the number of Angolans living in Portugal. Spaniards, too, have fled high unemployment looking for work in Algeria, where many Spanish companies have relocated. No longer seeing the US as their best opportunity for professional development, waves of Nigerian-Americans (the most educated Diaspora group in the country), vie for top spots in the new Lagos offices of JPMorgan, McKinsey and Blackrock.
- Innovation and information flows – Reverse innovation, a concept describing inventions that are adopted first in the developing world, is creeping into western corporate board rooms (and publishing houses). Plans to develop a ‘Silicon Savannah‘ in East Africa build on widely successful innovations emerging out of the banking and telecom sectors and now being rolled out in US and European markets. Images of Joseph Conrad’s Dark Continent are receding as the broadband industry turns to Africa for global growth and sustained demand. African policy innovations, too, offer lessons to Europe’s troubled economic union. A recent review of the health of the West African Economic Union by the IMF suggested Europe might learn something from how Africa’s economic unions have faired.
- Financial flows – Though largely still the recipient of foreign direct investment, Africa is gobbling up distressed assets in the West. Gatwick, the United Kingdom’s second largest airport, was recently purchased by a Nigerian and Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos (daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos), is the new majority shareholder in Portugal’s leading pay-TV and Internet provider Zon Multimedia. More traditional financial flows, such as remittances from Africans working abroad, are also changing. Already larger than official development assistance by a substantial margin, reports suggest remittances are now flowing to Europe from Africa. Underscoring these trends is reduced dependency on multilaterals (China alone lends more to Africa than the World Bank) and research by Standard Bank estimates that BRIC-Africa trade increased from $20bn to more than $250bn in the past 10 years.
- Cultural flows – A Financial Times editorial recently warned that the West would lose out on Africa’s ‘wave of creativity’ if it doesn’t reorient itself. To be sure, Africa’s cultural place in the larger world has always been evident, even if its recent recognition suggests it hasn’t. Nollywood, Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood, is a half billion dollar a year business and, according to UNESCO, puts out twice as many movies as Hollywood. Its growth also belies assumptions about the importance of intellectual property rights — something it largely exists without — in development. The continent’s cinematic creativity is paralleled by the emergence of its fashion industry, which is increasing in vogue — literally; an entire issue of the magazine was devoted to the continent recently. African-inspired cuisine also stands at the cusp. The “African Food Inevitability Thesis,” a phrase coined by a recent Wall St. Journal article, called Africa the foodies’ frontier and predicted a thriving commercial future for continental cuisine.
Even as a major western newspaper openly wonders how Africa will ‘join the larger world on its own terms,’ across virtually all indicators, evidence suggests it’s doing so largely on its own terms. If the West is stuck in low-growth and political paralysis, while Africa enjoys an economic renaissance, a more pressing question for Western observers might be: When will the West join Africa?
Eliot Pence is a director at the Whitaker Group, a corporate strategy firm focused on sub-Saharan Africa. Bright Simons is the founder of the mPedigree Network (www.mPedigree.Net), and a Senior Fellow at think tank, IMANI.