MANY ASPECTS OF EVOLUTION of modern economies have undergone radical and complete transformation so much so that there seems to be little or no relationship between the past and the present. It is a fact, however, that the past laid the foundation for the present even when the changes seem unrelated. The industrialised countries which have essentially been the exploiters of Africa – then and now – have changed their technologies in many and diverse ways. These changes have also brought about the requirements for the new technologies. The discovery of nylon transformed the textile industry, for instance, leading to the use of petrochemical hydrocarbons as replacement for cotton. Although some countries of Africa still remained relevant in the export of petroleum products, Europe and North America no longer had to depend on much of these to produce alternative textile products.
The railway system that was once heavily dependent on coal has been radically transformed. With the preponderance of electric trains – and in some cases those still using petroleum products – the coal industry’s relevance in transportation has been significantly relegated, reducing the need for coal exports from Africa. To that effect, many coal mines have been closed down in Africa, not because of environmental concerns, but because of a downward shift in demand. The automobile industry is now next in line. With China and many countries in Europe and North America leading the way in electric vehicles, the demand for petroleum will soon begin to spiral downwards. Africa will be significantly affected. Angola, Mozambique, Gabon and Nigeria are four African countries that draw a greater part of their revenues from petroleum. But that will not end the massive outflow of commodities from Africa as the new automobile technology will still be highly dependent on minerals from Africa.
About two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, an ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, is from the Congo alone. The same country is Africa’s leading producer of copper. Zambia is Africa’s second largest producer of copper. The demand for the metal from Zambia is rising. The role of both cobalt and copper has become central in the climate race to net zero emissions. This means the rise in demand is expected to continue as nations and transnational corporations scramble towards transition away from fossil fuel energy. The new rage is now receiving aggressive push by climate activists, campaigners, investors, business consultants and governments, with all forms of justifications. While, fundamentally, the world is getting warmer and the climate is undergoing a change for the worse, many of the promoters of green alternatives are driven by motives other than the altruistic. The activists and campaigners are driven by the motives of heroism, the entrepreneurs and investors by the pecuniary and the politicians are driven by populism. The difficulty in fusing these different motives to arrive at a common goal was given expression in Glasgow in November as the summit still fell short of some of the idealistic expectations set out for the gathering.
As usual, the voices of the representatives from developed countries – the exploiters of Africa – dominated the Glasgow discussions. For no fault of theirs, however, African representatives did not seem to have much to say, nor did they seem to have much demand to make on the industrialised countries, which are the leading polluters. There seemed not to be much to be said draw attention to their own peculiar situation. Nana Akufo-Addo, however, made a difference. The President of Ghana, spoke more forcefully than others, looked straight in the face of those exploiter nations, making some rare and uncommon decisions during the Glasgow summit. Although South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa was also bold to speak, he was less fiery and less demanding than Akufo-Addo. The Nigerian president’s much longer speech at the summit did not elicit the kind of demand Africa is expected to use such a platform to make. Altogether, by comparison, the short speech of Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados – a small island country – was remarkable as she told the leaders of the world’s largest economies to “try harder” to avert catastrophic climate change. She was emphatic on the need to make the international financial system deliver for those on the frontline of the climate crisis.
Just when the developing countries should have been rejoicing that information technology has given an opportunity for a quantum leap to probably catch up with the developed countries, a wider gap was created. While the developed countries keep innovating and transforming, African countries seem complacent. Up till now, African countries still generally remain non-starters in data-driven modern technologies. Despite the much budgetary allocations and spending on data gathering and statistics at country levels, policy decisions are mostly made out of considerations unrelated to such data. The process of emergence of many of the political leaders is part of the problems. Many policy decisions by African political leaders are on incremental basis, often informed by some other forms of sentiments, while those of developed countries are on realistic basis. It is in those places where decisions are based on realism that we hear of “big data,” “data lakes” or “data science.” Recently, a statement on data became very popular. ”In God we trust. All others must bring data,” was a quote, made by W. Edwards Deming, referring mainly to the importance of data measurement and analysis when doing business. Its application is, however, not restricted to business as its relevance in governance has been elaborately established.While the data from international organisations could be credible and desirable, reliance on them by countries is expected to be minimal or, at best, merely for information and advisory purposes. In many cases, those country data published by some international organisations are derived from specific countries’ official reports. Where they are flawed, they become misleading. And, in many cases, where such flaws are too evident and defy reasonable and acceptable measures of variations, the organisations use such data with some caveats or resort to their own independently generated data, no matter how imperfect. It is interesting that data from United Nations’ agencies, regional development institutions and international NGOs and some professional groups are either hailed or treated with disdain by many countries in Africa depending on how they seem to support or contradict their official claims. Sometimes recently, the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report was officially celebrated by an African country for its relative improvement over a previous year. The same country fought hard against the criticism of the country’s government by The Economist magazine. This kind of flip-flop would have been unnecessary if the country has a robust and dependable national database for national planning and uses it meticulously. And this is where the crux of the development gap lies and where Africa will keep lagging behind except something is deliberately done to correct the anomaly.
It is not even enough for African countries to generate reliable data at national or continental level. It is important to constantly and strategically compare Africa’s data with those of other third world countries, to periodically provide an idea of how Africa fares. In essence, there must be both national and continental strategies on data from Africa, with the ultimate application for competitive purpose on the global stage. The countries at the frontiers of development, or those generally referred to as emerging markets, are more in Asia than Africa. And the perception of the agencies that generate data influences the development of such countries as investment inflows and other development programmes into such countries tend to be greater than those not within the radars of such agencies. For instance, Moody’s, Standard and Poors’ or Fitch Ratings are reference points for many multinationals while making transnational investment decisions. National governments also find such data useful, especially as part background check for the purposes of sovereign loans between lender countries and borrower countries. They are generally unlikely to make forays into countries in which the ratings’ reports are unfavourable.
Of all the various regional big league clubs, only South Africa has managed to be a full member of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bloc. The same South Africa and a handful of other countries are allowed to be observers in groups such as G7 or G20 where serious issues about the future direction of the world are being discussed and global strategies developed. In none of these is Africa a recognised force to reckon with. Given the fact that those influential countries determine the directions, Africa is likely to continue to remain a ‘privileged’ partner and its resources will continue to be needed for the development of these more advanced economies while the problems of Africa will remain more compounded. Africa is known to produce just about three per cent of the causes of global warming, but is paying a disproportionately greater price for it. With the new green economy, Africa is likely to pay even greater price except deliberate efforts are made by the leaders within the continent to put the key development issues in the proper context through appropriate data and follow up with appropriate policy decisions and actions.
The advanced economies will not wait for Africa to develop. In the worst case scenario, if Africa is no longer a viable source of what they need to sustain their own development, the choice is clear; they will switch allegiance to other continents. But, while that extreme action seems unlikely, Africa still needs to get its bearing and priorities right by generating and deploying appropriate data on all aspects of its socio-economic decisions, particularly on micro and micro-economics. Without this, corruption will continue to weaken the continent and outsiders – in collusion with corrupt Africans – will continue to plunder its resources for just a pittance. The relative backwardness of Africa in the global value chain may continue to the continent’s disadvantage and it may also remain a dumping ground for products from the advanced economies. As long as these persist, Africa will continue to be exploited and the history of plundering and exploitation will continue to repeat itself. It needs not be allowed to remain so.
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December 24, 2021
December 21, 2021