No.12 - November 2013

by Kwame Akonor

Africa Rising? A Post-2015 UN Development Agenda


Africa's recent economic performance is impressive, but major obstacles remain. African governments lack political will, while the landscape of international institutions is crowded and confused.  Moreover, the UN development system's support for Africa and its institutions is disjointed.  Under these circumstances, meaningful coordination is elusive - perhaps even a fool’s errand.   The UN development system has a lot to offer Africa, but it requires urgent rationalization if it is to find a coherent voice.

The  economic prospects for Africa appear encouraging. In the last ten years real income has grown by some 30%, making Africa the fastest growing continent.  Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies of the past decade are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this good news, Africa is not out of the woods. National economies rest on very weak foundations and have a high debt overhang.  There are growing income inequalities, and hunger and poverty remain the common lot. 

The need for more accountability and less corruption in domestic governance is often cited as a panacea for African development, but scant attention is paid to illicit capital flight from Africa. The ADB calculated that between 1980-2009, Africa lost up to $1.4 trillion in illicit financial flows, making it a “net creditor to the world”. Transfer pricing alone costs Africa more than it receives in bilateral aid.  Refreshingly, the June 2013 G8 summit pledged new goals “to fight the scourge of tax evasion.” 

One of the major prerequisites for development progress is closer regional cooperation, but, today, there are too many regional economic communities (RECs) on the continent, leading to major implementation problems and policy incoherence. 

The complex web of African institutions is even denser within the UN.  The UN’s primary presence in Africa is the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), but it has a checkered record of drawing up programs that are not acted upon.  The ECA should be more proactive, holding African governments’ feet to the fire. The UN counts some 350 development-related offices on the continent, and closer to 500 for the entire system. Despite this oversaturation, more offices are springing up every year! In May 2013, UNDP opened its African regional service center in Addis, comprising staff with a profile almost identical to the ECA.  The work of other UN bodies should reinforce the ECA rather than the other way around.

Another challenge for African countries is the effective implementation of development strategies and policies—rhetoric versus reality. The UN system has produced too many blueprints and programs for developing Africa. The obstacle to economic performance in Africa has not been the ambitious nature of development targets, but the absence of political will by African governments and the lack of coherence at regional and global levels.

A post-2015 collaborative development framework could explore a number of possibilities. First, a paradigm shift in development strategies towards a more comprehensive structural overhaul of African economies.  Second, the work of the UN system should help reinforce African-determined priorities, not the other way around. Third, resource mobilization will be critical to any UN development agenda and partnership with Africa.

Kwame Akonor is Associate Professor at Seton Hall University’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs. He directs the University’s Africana Center and is also Director of the African Development Institute, a New York-based think tank in special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Akonor is the author of 'African Economic Institutions' (London: Routledge, 2011).
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