MT Special: What - if anything - can the WEF change in Africa?

Ahead of this week's World Economic Forum on Africa, in Cape Town, Carole Stone outlines what the conference hopes to achieve.

by Carole Stone
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
I went to Davos in January, and learned a great deal more than I had previously grasped about the global economy.  I certainly met more significant business people from around the world in those few days than I could have done anywhere else (I’ve already booked two of them to address TheStoneClub). So when I was recently invited to WEF Africa, which starts in Cape Town tomorrow, I changed my plans to make sure I could be there. But what for, exactly? Will I come away with a clear understanding of how the issues facing Africa should be addressed?    

I know that Africa is one of the fastest growing regions of the world. And yet its image is pretty dire. When I think of the continent as a whole, I think of poverty, violence and corruption; so many of its present leaders seem better at exploiting their people than helping them benefit from the growth in their economies.  

As the Cape Town conference executive summary says: ‘Positive GDP growth does not necessarily equate to widespread socio-economic development’. You can say that again! There’s a rather brief mention of tackling corruption in the conference programme; I’m looking for some strong proposals for action on this. Without action on corruption, Africa’s potential for investment will remain limited.

Rather than increase aid that easily goes astray, I prefer investment. I’m on the advisory board of a development company, Phoenix Africa, which specialises in building businesses in post-conflict situations, especially rural development.  Many companies would see this kind of development as too risky, but we’re one of those who think it can be both profitable and of real help in improving the most basic of needs in Africa – like transport in rural areas.

Another of my great interests is leadership. In one way or another, so very many of Africa’s leaders are now discredited. One Young World, a not-for-profit organisation in which I am involved, finds the brightest and best young leaders from all over the world and gives them a platform to promote their ideas of how to do things better.  We had thirty delegates from Africa at our inaugural Summit in London last year – one of whom has gone on to form the first Africa Student Leaders Summit in Cape Town.  I’m delighted to see that one of my fellow One Young World Counsellors, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, is speaking at the Cape Town Conference. He’s launching the annual Africa Progress Panel Report. But how optimistic - and how realistic - will it be?    

There’ll be many other sessions, like Growing Green (recent studies suggest that a green economy could boost employment); Speaking Truth to Power (will new media channels mean that tyranny and corruption are more effectively challenged?); and More Voting, Less Democracy (is democracy failing in Africa?).  

But will I come away feeling anything is really going to change following all this talk? I’ll let you know next week.

- Carole Stone is managing director of opinion research company YouGovStone, and founder of the TheStoneClub, a networking group. She'll be reporting back on the WEF Africa next week, exclusively for MT. If you're interested in the challenges of doing business in Africa, you might also want to check out Will Mitting's brilliant MT blog, Letters from Malawi.

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