Africa's Future in our Grasp -- by Obiageli K. Ezekwesili

By World Bank Ghana Office

Africa, south of the Sahara, today faces its brightest prospects in a generation. Before dismissing this statement as yet another belied optimistic forecast, consider the following facts:

* Before the onset of the global financial crisis of 2008-9 that morphed into an economic crisis, African economies were growing at 5 percent a year for over a decade, accelerating to over 6 percent for the last three years.

* Growth was widespread, with 22 non-oil-exporting countries sustaining better-than-four-percent growth for over a decade.

* Poverty was declining by about one percentage point a yeara rate faster than in India.

* Child mortality rates fell by 25 percent in four years in about 13 countries and across the continent, the fight against the HIV/AIDS scourge is gaining mileage.

* Primary school enrolment rates were rising faster than in any other continent.

* Over 60 percent of Africans (and 80 percent of urban Africans) are in range of a GSM signal making mobile phones the most prized asset of the poor.

* While the global crises hit the continent badly, African policymakers have continued to pursue prudent macroeconomic policies and growth has rebounded to a forecast 4.5 percent this year.

These factsas well as numerous success stories from Malis mango exports and Nigerias Nollywood, to Ugandas gorilla tourism and to Kenyas cut flowers--paint a robust picture of a continent that is clearly on the move. By enabling innovative financial solutions such as using mobile phones and the m-pesa service to make payments for bills or micro-loans, ICT is revealing the many transformational opportunities critical to Africas takeoff to sustained growth and poverty reduction.

But that is only half the picture. The other half includes the nearly 400 million Africans who live on $1.25 a day; the massive infrastructure deficit that leaves only one in four with access to electricityand even fewer with access to clean water and sanitation; agricultural productivity that is still too low to help the 70 percent of the poor escape hunger and povertyand now threatened by climate change; and weak institutions that often result in civil conflict, earning 21 of the 47 countries the label fragile states".

How can we build on the momentum created by Africas recent performance to tackle the many development challenges facing the continent? By harnessing and scaling up the forces that brought the decade-long growth and poverty reductionwhich include external resources (aid, debt relief, private capital flows, remittances), prudent economic policies, and a more open and vibrant civil society that is increasingly holding governments to account, and achieving results.

The latter is what marks this era as being different from previous ones. Policymakers continued with prudent economic policies during the crisisin the face of a global recession and relatively lax fiscal and monetary policies in developed countriesbecause there was political support for these policies. The public has seen how populist policies such as price and exchange rate controls or high fiscal deficits can be counter-productive, especially to the detriment of poor people. And policies are increasingly debated and discussed in the countriesand adopted only when domestic consensus emerges.

These positive developments mean that Africas growth momentum can be sustained and accelerated, and the deep problems solved, if there are adequate resources and a vigorous, open debate on how to use those resources more effectively. Most development experts agree that the financial crisis has been a game changer, and growth policies will need to adapt to the new, undefined normal. The World Bank needs to see how best it can provide financing, technical assistance, and mobilize global knowledge to support economic growth in Africa, and provide evidence to nourish public debate.

To that end, kick-off conversations in Addis Ababa, Abuja and Dakar will follow the Johannesburg discussions about how the Bank can be a better partner for Africa, with Africans. The conversations are the beginning of a process of listening and learning that will eventually lead to a renewed World Bank strategy for Africa. But they are also conversations about Africas future, because the possibility of leveraging recent growth performance to tackle the continents entrenched development challenges is well within Africas grasp. Now is the time for action.

***The writer is the World Bank Vice President for the Africa region.