Knowledge Economy: The Next Frontier for Africa

Published on 15th February 2010

                                                Photo courtesy
The year 2010 is particularly significant because it marks the start of  a new decade. New beginnings are always an opportunity for renewal and rededication to development aspirations. Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of' independence for a large number of' African countries. Encouraged by the trailblazing example of countries like Sudan and Ghana and a critical mass of countries achieving independence in 1960, that period could arguably be described as the turning point in the struggle for decolonization. We must reflect on how well we have done since then.


Africa has made considerable progress since the beginning of the new millennium. This was the period in which the African Union was established and NEPAD adopted. Prior to the outbreak of the global economic and financial crisis, Africa had consistently achieved annual growth rates of 6%. It was making steady progress in peace and security issues and had taken the lead in defining its own governance agenda by promoting more democratic and accountable political structures through the creation of the unique African Peer Review Mechanism. In a number of social development areas such as gender equality, primary school enrolment, reductions in HIV prevalence rates and progress in the treatment of infectious and preventable diseases, Africa has made considerable gains. 


The year 2009 however marked a departure from this trend as socio-economic developments in Africa were overshadowed by the global economic and financial crisis and the prior food and fuel crisis. Export and government earnings dropped significantly as did remittances and other financial flows. Continental GDI' dropped from 4.9 per cent in 2008 to 1.6% in 2009 which is below the population growth rate and implies a fall in per capita income. Similarly, governance conditions seemed to give fresh cause for concern with a rash of unconstitutional changes of governments that have blotted the political landscape in the recent past and which should be firmly resisted. Maternal mortality and violence against women and children remain unacceptably high and our societies continue to face challenges in providing adequately for marginalized and vulnerable groups as well as for refugees and internally displaced persons.


Despite this departure, the forecast in the forthcoming Economic Report for Africa, jointly published by the ECA and African Union Commission, shows that Africa's GDP is expected to grow at a rate of 4.3 per cent in 2010. We need to ensure that our development policies go beyond improving macroeconomic management and balances, which are important and necessary but insufficient. We need structures that promote production, employment and trade to transform our small and fragmented economies into strong, diversified and resilient entities that can generate employment for their teeming populations.


The adoption by the ILO and UN Economic and Social Council of the Global Jobs Pact aimed at stimulating economic recovery, generating jobs and providing protection to working people and their families is a step in the right direction. The 3rd Joint AU/ECA Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development taking place in Lilongwe, Malawi in March 2010 will take this matter further under the theme "Promoting high-level sustainable growth to reduce unemployment in Africa". All these efforts must he underpinned by a renewed sense of urgency in promoting Africa's regional integration agenda.


Regional integration is imperative if Africa is to realize its potential to become a dynamic economic force. Faster and deeper integration will not only reflect the pan-African ideal of continental unity but will also enable Africa to engage more meaningfully in global political and economic processes. A common African voice has been used to great effect in recent international forums such as the G20 meetings and the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Despite minor misunderstandings, Africa got a good deal out of the Copenhagen meeting because it went in there as one delegation on the able leadership of Prime Minister Metes Zenawi. Regional integration will enable more economies of scale in the productive activities that must underpin greater competitiveness and growth in the continent.


In today's global knowledge economy and information-driven society, economic success is increasingly based on the effective utilization of intangible assets such as knowledge, skills and innovative potential as key resources for competitive advantage. Information and Communications Technologies can improve performance of businesses and the efficiency of markets, while empowering citizens and communities and increasing their access to knowledge.


ICTs provide several opportunities for our countries. As mobile phone usage expands, it will facilitate health, commerce, trading, and financial services such as m-banking and m-payments. Africans can now use their mobile phones to make person to person payments, transfer money, purchase pre-paid electricity. ICT devices also provide a wealth of information that have enhanced the education and knowledge stream for children, leading to their further understanding of Africa's development challenges, human rights issues and the science and technology underpinning ICTs. Furthermore, the use of geo-spatial technology for management and exploration of natural resources and disaster awareness and preparedness as well as in climate change adaptation will contribute to improving socio-economic conditions in Africa.


Whilst Africa has chalked some milestones in embracing and adapting to the Information Society and the use of ICTs, it needs to be integrated much faster into the knowledge economy. Critical foundation blocs need urgently to he put in place, namely by way of infrastructure, regional backbones and connectivity. Internet growth and speed is still limited in Africa. We have only one fixed broadband subscriber for every 1,000 inhabitants while Europe in comparison has 200 subscribers per 1,000 people.


I am nevertheless happy to report that through the African Information Society Initiative with the support of ECA and its partners, up to forty African countries have made good progress in adopting ICT strategies especially through National Information and Communication Infrastructure Plans (NICIs). Tremendous efforts are also underway to launch e-health, e-government and e-commerce applications in related sectors. Through initiatives such as e-CEMAC and e-SADC, ICTs are being used in support of regional integration to promote harmonization of national policies and regulatory frameworks. ECA accordingly looks forward to working closely with its partners especially the African Union Commission in monitoring the Summit outcomes on ICT.


By Abdoulie Janneh,

UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ECA.


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