Kris Berwouts (°1963-2023) studeerde Afrikaanse taalkunde en geschiedenis in Gent.
‘Maybe Africa has answers that the whole world can learn from?’
How much longer can we count on countries sitting down together to try and solve world problems? International organisations and alliances of states seem to be rapidly losing ground and power. But on the African continent, governments remain convinced that working together is their only way to count internationally. ‘We need to go back to 2015, I sometimes think. Then the space to work for a more equal and sustainable world seemed much greater than today.’
Ahunna Eziakonwa is an impressive person. She is assistant administrator and regional director for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In this role, she supports 46 African countries in achieving Agenda 2030 and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
‘Corona has reinforced all kinds of inequalities.’
We meet her in Brussels. She wants to talk about the impact of the war in Ukraine on Africa: ‘The war in Ukraine comes just after another heavy crisis that we are far from overcoming. The continent is still fighting with the impact of the pandemic.’
The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced all sorts of inequalities. Education stopped in several countries for a long time, but privileged children coped better than the less well-off. The fight for gender equality was dealt heavy blows, as was the fight against sexual violence. Covid also had a heavy impact on family incomes. In various places in Africa, there was social unrest.
‘And it is not over’, warns Eziakonwa. ‘We are still struggling with those consequences.’
Ahunna Eziakonwa: But the pandemic also brought us opportunities. Africa felt excluded from the international scene. We had very little room to manoeuvre and did not feel we could count on much external help. The realisation that we were mostly dependent on ourselves helped us to rely on each other.
Apart from a lot of suffering and loss, corona has unleashed a few unifying dynamics in us. The African Continental Free Trade Area, for example. It was created in 2018 after the African Continental Free Trade Agreement concluded between 54 of the 55 countries of the African Union. But the Free Trade Area only became operational on 1 January 2021. This is so important. Without successful regional integration at different levels and in different areas, I see a bleak future.
Fortunately, the dynamic today is: more cooperation. Covid has accelerated this and the Ukraine crisis is not going to reverse the trend. Africa is not divided, on the contrary. We realise that, as a growing autonomous partner in world affairs, we have every interest in unity and cooperation. And at a time like today, when we are seeing rapid polarisation everywhere, this is perhaps what Africa has to offer the world.
Ahunna Eziakonwa: Meanwhile, all sorts of calamities are heading our way. In different regions, violence is spreading, peace processes are stalled. The climate confronts us with problems that threaten to get out of hand. Africa is opting for multilateralism at a time when it is under pressure elsewhere. The war in Ukraine comes on top of this.
‘Africa will not let this divide it’, you say. But locally, the consequences can be heavy?
Ahunna Eziakonwa: We do not know how long the crisis in Ukraine will last, how it can derail further or what the economic consequences will be. But they are already being felt.
A number of countries are highly dependent on grain from Russia or Ukraine, and the war is driving up prices. Not least for fuel. I just read that the price of fertiliser has gone up by 21%, that is huge.
Measures have to be taken, and they will hurt and fuel social unrest. Governments will have to respond, will use money and resources normally invested in stability and development, so the problems will move. A domino effect could occur.
Ahunna Eziakonwa: Once again, we have to tap into our creativity and look for collective responsibility. Did you know that 60% of unused arable land is in Africa? To get through this crisis, we have to accelerate the process of sitting down and thinking about how to change the structures of the economy. How can we increase productivity?
‘We should go back to 2015, I sometimes think. Back then, the space to work for a more equal and sustainable world seemed much greater than today.’
This requires new technologies and new partnerships. The world needs to pay attention to investments in Africa. How can the world help to provide the necessary technology for Africa to respond to these new challenges?
For some time now, Africa has been actively developing new technologies that can accelerate growth. There are now more opportunities to finance development projects than before, including in Africa. Many African leaders now have a better understanding of Africa’s potential. But we will need partners to guide and help us. For example, in respecting our climate commitments.
Time to listen
Ahunna Eziakonwa: This is not a good time for multilateralism at the global level. We should go back to 2015, I sometimes think. Back then, the space to work for a more equal and sustainable world seemed much greater than today.
Multilateralism is losing ground and democracies around the world are under pressure. The world community must ask itself: ‘How do we regain the lost ground?’ Covid and now the Ukraine crisis… These are deafening wake-up calls.
Africa is showing resilience today. It is we who find each other in these difficult times. Here multilateralism is on the rise. Perhaps Africa has answers that the whole world can learn from. It is time to listen to Africa.