Opinion: Embracing Tech Can Power Africa’s Post-Covid Recovery

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) shake hands after a meeting of Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative and Rwanda’s Strategic Capacity Building Initiative in Kigali, Rwanda on December 9, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Steve TERILL (Photo by STEVE TERILL / AFP)

November 17, 2020//-African nations that master the technological revolution will be the ones to recover and transform fastest from Covid-19, writes Tony Blair, the founder and executive chairman of the Institute for Global Change.

Covid-19 has revealed much about Africa. Its leaders – in governments, the private sector, civil society, communities and the health sector – have shown exemplary effort in tackling this disease. Although it is not over, and cases are rising in many countries across the continent, many Western countries could nonetheless learn a lot from how Africa has been handling the pandemic.

Yet despite the best efforts of African leadership, this pandemic has created a multitude of ongoing crises, shining a spotlight on the continent’s systemic weaknesses.

Basic health services and supplies shortages have worsened health outcomes. HIV, tuberculosis and malaria deaths may rise by around half a million people.

32 million children have been affected by school closures in sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom have limited capacity to benefit from digital learning.

African GDP is on course for a decline of 3 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. The World Bank now estimates that extreme poverty could rise by 49 million with low income households seeing their incomes drop by up to 40%. Foreign direct investment in Africa declined by 28 per cent the first half of this year alone.

And we have all seen the doubling of hunger forecasts – undoing the decline seen in recent years – as well as the disruptions to supply chains, market linkages and farmer incomes.

The question facing Africa’s leaders now is just as pressing as that posed by the pandemic earlier this year, and requires the same urgency: how do we rapidly restore growth and development, address those weaknesses and build back better?

I believe building back better means doubling down on our pre-COVID agenda, and to do so I recommend focusing on three mutually reinforcing factors:

The first is an increased focus on economic and social transformation to empower people, a goal shared by most of the leaders I have spoken to over the 12 years that my Institute has been working in Africa.

This means shifting the structure of economies and building the capacity of public services to deliver jobs, incomes, livelihoods, healthcare, education, food security and national security.

Yet we continue to face one major challenge, whether at a national or sub-national level: a lack of sufficient policy and programmatic coherence.

Here, Africa can learn from the likes of Brazil, China, Israel, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam.  All rapidly progressed by focusing on sectors that could create jobs, incomes, net exports and tax revenues.

In Africa, a focus on agro-led industrialisation can provide a policy anchor, merging agriculture transformation with manufacturing development. Countries like Ethiopia, Morocco, Rwanda and Tunisia have done exceedingly well with such an approach, and other nations such as Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania are following suit.

This can vary by country – or the anchor could be a different industry, such as tourism or, increasingly technology and data services itself. But having an anchor increases focus and consistency, while keeping the emphasis on job creation and local value creation.

The second is an increased urgency and focus on effective government delivery. COVID 19 has shown how the urgency with which governments listen to experts, take decisions and follow through can make a difference.

Achieving that increased urgency and focus requires political leaders to be in the driving seat, with skilled and talented people working for them in the centre of government and in other key positions – particularly those with the strong management skills and political savvy to get things done.

They need the systems and processes to help them make better decisions faster, plus the structure to co-ordinate resources – delivery units, task forces, cabinet sub-committees or crisis war rooms to turn their vision into coordinated action.

The third – and the one with perhaps the greatest transformative potential, and which underpins the others is a much stronger embrace of the technological revolution.

Here, the conditions could hardly be more auspicious. Africa is experiencing a period of unparalleled growth in the adoption and development of digital technology.

Every second of every day, 100 new users gain access to the internet, while a recent survey suggested that, during the pandemic, 57% of organizations across sectors are increasingly adopting digital technology to thrive, recover and grow.

The economic potential of this is truly enormous. My Institute forecasts that this digital technology revolution has the potential to contribute more than $1 trillion cumulatively towards Africa’s GDP – about 40% of current GDP – over the next six years.

Yet the positive impact can be even greater and this will require an even stronger commitment to embracing technology throughout economies and societies.

This means taking the strategic decisions to make technology central to efforts to develop agriculture, manufacturing and services.

It requires addressing the main bottlenecks to universal internet access and data systems: power and telecom infrastructure and governance, device (especially mobile phone) and service affordability, as well as digital awareness and skills.

Achieving this will mean new forms of collaboration, and new digital compacts between African nations, for example on the interoperability of data networks and platforms.

And it will mean changing the old models of governance and of public service.

Just as the pandemic revealed Africa’s strength, so we have seen that the nations that have best navigated the pandemic are those that have most strongly embraced technology – such as Singapore and Taiwan.

African leaders face a huge task in building back after Covid. But I have no doubt that the African nations that master the technological revolution will be the ones to recover and transform fastest.

Tony Blair is Executive Chairman, The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

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