We need to listen to the people

We need to listen to the people
  • PublishedMay 18, 2013

At the heart of Africa’s failure to deliver the dreams of Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah for “one continent, one people and one nation” is the leadership’s failure to be guided by the needs of the very people meant to benefit from the collective wealth and power. “You have to listen to me because I know what is not in your books.” Powerful words from Esther, a smallholder farmer from Malawi, whom I met in April this year at a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice in Dublin.

The bedrock of the success we look for in Africa, she cut an inspiring figure as she spoke, in her language, to an audience that included luminaries like former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and US Vice-President Al Gore. So where are we today? What is Africa’s challenge? What happened to the dreams, hopes and vision of 50 years ago when the predecessor of the African Union was born and Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, a leading proponent of our dream of Pan-Africanism, said: “Africa is one continent, one people and one nation?”

Across Africa, from the slums of Kibeira and Khayalitsha to the villages of Turkana and Giyani, far from the ivory towers of our political discourse, I see and hear the rising tide of anger and discontent. Africa is rich. Our people walk on gold, diamonds, oil, platinum. Yet our people are poor, and our mineral wealth has become a curse in itself. Our natural resources, now estimated at a third of the world’s reserves, power the global economy. But we undervalue our assets. We undervalue ourselves. Our challenge is not to miss the next global commodity boom and to grow from commodity-exporting economies into realising mutual benefits with our partners. It means that we stop acting as 55 countries, each striking separate deals in a way that weakens our bargaining power as an economic bloc. Instead we need to leverage this wealth to develop our own infrastructure and connect our continent.

And it is not like we have no expertise; in some sectors we have excelled. I remember when we met as African communications ministers in the mid-90s; Africa had fewer phones then than the City of New York or Tokyo. We used state power to shape the policy, regulatory and spectrum management environment to crowd-in private sector investment and harness their expertise and technology.

As a result, today we have the fastest growing mobile market in the world with over 600 million mobile phones. No aid dollars drove this digital revolution. It was innovation and demand.

I see millions, like Esther, the unbanked, who have understood this technology and are using applications like M-Pesa in Kenya to access financial services and to connect to the markets to check the best prices they can get for their crops. Today we see a climate crisis bite deeply into the fabric of the world we live in. We see the prolonged droughts and extreme weather threaten the global food supply. We have more than half of the remaining arable land in the world here in Africa. We need to put smallholder farmers like Esther at the core of our vision. A coherent, continent-wide African leadership, policy and incentives would see tens of millions of women smallscale farmers lifted out of poverty. I ask Esther what she needs to succeed: “We need a hand up not a handout. Give us women land ownership, agricultural extension services, finances, water, seeds, energy and we will make Africa a great continent. We will feed our families and we will satisfy the global search for food security.”

Understanding the nexus between climate hunger, malnutrition and climate justice means seeing the need to place mothers and infant children at the centre of our development paradigm. In Africa, 60 million children, or almost two in five, are stunted. Across this continent, 12 Africans die every minute as a result of hunger and malnutrition. We know countries may lose 2% to 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) as a result of iron, iodine, and zinc deficiencies.

As Esther recounts, “I experience the climate crisis. The rains come late. Then they are very heavy and often our crops are destroyed. I have three children to feed and I have three more orphans to look after because their parents have died of HIV/Aids.” Driven by rural poverty and the climate crisis, I see urbanisation is happening at a frightening rate. In Kenya, Kibeira sits like a huge, sprawling mushroom of shacks on the outskirts of Nairobi. It is a teeming, bustling place which is now part of a familiar sight on the African landscape.

I see no signs of public investment here. But it holds the potential of migrating people from micro-traders to entrepreneurs. We need to recast the need for education, health, goods and basic services into entrepreneurial opportunities for our people. It is estimated that two thirds of the African population will live in slums like this by 2050. While there’s no doubt that we have made progress, I wonder when these gains of our African growth strategy will trickle down to the hundreds of millions of people that still eke out their very existence at the edges of our humanity.

Still, our greatest challenge or opportunity will come from the demographic profile of our population. Half our population is under 20 today and our “youth bulge” will account for a third of the global youth population in less than three generations. What is the future we are nurturing for our youth when nearly half of them have few skills, no jobs and are unlikely to have the dignity of labour in their lifetime? It is time we changed the education and social environment to create livelihoods. Technology holds the possibility to change the world we live in, how we work and how we organise our lives. That is the dial of hope we need to change; it is a matter of the greatest urgency. The current ferment demonstrates that the patience of the people is running out. Citizens alienated by corruption are demanding a voice. They want the dignity of work and social protection, safety and justice. Independent public institutions are a key pillar to prevent the incestuous web of interconnected, predatory political and economic elites who have a stranglehold on our growth potential. A third of our people lives in a conflict-ridden country and will never achieve any of the Millennium Development Goals. A country that goes through a civil war will take at least 25 years to recover its pre-conflict GDP.

In places like the Great Lakes, rape has become an instrument of war. It forces thousands of children into the brutal game of soldiers of war. It breeds brutal warlords who obstruct regional integration in their fiefdoms and with it our hope of interconnecting and promoting the free movement of goods and people. Our regional coordinating structures of the African Union working with the African Development Bank have a crucial role in the infrastructure financing of roads, ports, energy, transport, water and banking. Mandela once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” We should listen, listen and listen very carefully to the voices of our people on the ground to build an African future based on hope, hard work and innovation.

Written By
New African

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