Summits and stereotypes: analysing the analysis of Africa — by Jolyon Ford at Oxford Analytica
(It also featured ANC calm-man Pravin Gordhan politely ignoring Peter Mandelson’s mildly condescending tax-man jibes — another story).
I found three things particularly striking at the summit.
The first is a wider point about the contemporary African growth story.
One risk to the sustainability, improved quality and greater inclusivity of that growth is that prevailing applause and interest — while well-founded — might undermine reform momentum despite the distance there still is to be travelled. That is, the succession of summits, special issue Africa pieces, over-subscribed bond auctions (and so on) do reflect both the achievements/merits of, and real interest in, the continent’s economies. Yet I wonder about the unintended consequences of African politicians and policy-makers being repeatedly told, these days, that their continent is such “˜hot property’. Might this impression (that the world is attracted to Africa anyway) in some way soften the incentives for pursuing reforms — including those to improve investment attractiveness — just when chances exist to push further?
A second striking aspect came during discussion on Africa’s well-known infrastructure deficit/opportunity.
The continent appears increasingly unlikely to bridge the financing gap on physical infrastructure, or to mimic innovation in other areas with scaling-up incentives for private sector financing. But contemporary debates on the infrastructure deficit routinely omit a crucial number: the post-build cost of maintaining all these roads, ports and power-stations. Moreover, the focus on the “˜what’ and the “˜how’ always sees participants omit discussion of the crucial “˜who’ issue.
Conference-goers seem to think these mega-projects plan, build and maintain themselves sans human beings. One goes to too many Africa events where focus on physical infrastructure occludes the skills shortages that will continue to curtail governments’ abilities to plan, implement and maintain projects efficiently and effectively — and without external help.
The third issue is more a reflection on the business of summits.
Consider the infrastructure issue: someone at my table groaned “not another infrastructure panel!” He missed the point. Those who have to design themes for such events know the challenges. On African business summits, there is limited scope for being fancy and innovative: the place is not changing that fast, and the big issues will not just go away: infrastructure (hard-project, soft-regulatory, and human-capital), access to financing, regional integration, health and education, etc.
By all means must we be prepared to be innovative about pursuing Africa’s advantage and avoiding mistakes of other regions — the so-called “˜leapfrog’ phenomenon; yet the subject-matters themselves are, boringly, big and unavoidable. And work on them very incomplete.
During the summit I made a note of these other features of African business summitry, including:
- Consumers Often, after many executives have chattered excitedly about the “˜demographic dividend’ and the irrepressible African consumer, someone with eyes and a conscience (this year it was a veteran British journalist) will ask a question about jobless growth, widening equality gaps and poverty indices — only to be patted on the head.
- Catchphrases The continent has a tremendous richness of business success, often against daunting odds. Yet one keeps hearing about a particular shoe-maker in Ethiopia (deserved success, but still) and the feats of mobile phone firms. There is more going on than this.
- Confusion Participants will continue, sigh, to ignore sober reality in favour of bandwagon-bender analysis that does their firms or clients no favours. My last rant-blog touched on this after a Cape Town experience. For many firms it would make more sense to have a better Soweto (one city) strategy than a South Sudan (whole country) one, but try saying the shocking “˜South Africa’ word during discussions about good places to do stuff in Africa.
- Confusion – part two Typically, right at the end of a speech, comment or panel where the talk is all about urbanisation (consumer demand!) and hydrocarbons (Nigeria or Norway?) and so on, someone will say something like “˜oh, and do not forget agriculture, without which all of this makes no sense’. Whereas this is how Africa summits should begin, simple.
- China Finally, would it not be nice to hear a perspective on China-in-Africa from someone who is an expert in China’s political economy or who is in fact Chinese. Now, China holds its own summits, or may not be interested in attending the many that do happen, or may be content to speak with deeds not words. Yet it is striking to attend repeatedly the huge annual African mining indaba, where one hears from Australian and Canadian and even Kazakh representatives but not Chinese ones. At The Times event, we had a panel discuss “˜the West versus the BRICS’ — yet while there is recognition of the need for cooperation not just competition, where are the representatives of this “˜elephant [not] in the room’?
At our own annual “˜Global Horizons’ conference in September, we have chosen for the Africa plenary the theme “˜Measuring Success’ — precisely because of the experience of multiple events and summits where all of us are working on uncertain data and definitions on issues from dam-building to demographics.
Sir Bob Geldof closed the Africa CEO summit by saying (words to the effect of) “Africa will have “˜arrived’ when we no longer have summits about this”. That point has not arrived — in the meantime, one hopes all the attention does not distract officials from the hard work still ahead.
Jolyon Ford works for Oxford Analytica, which partnered The Times CEO Africa Summit. These are his own views.