Message from Tony Blair

Tony Blair, who set up and chairs the Commission for Africa, today issued the following message to coincide with the New York launch of the Commission for Africa’s follow up report, Still Our Common Interest.

‘I am not big on anniversaries, as I sadly suspect my wife would confirm. By temperament I am always more likely to look forward rather than back. But the five years which have passed since the Commission for Africa published its first authoritative report – and the new report being launched today – does gives us an opportunity to look at what has changed on the continent and, more importantly, where we need to focus efforts over the coming years.

The most striking story out of Africa over the last five years – and one often overlooked – has been its remarkable economic growth. Even the global financial crisis, from which the developed world is still struggling to recover, slowed down rather than reversed the continent’s strong performance.

Between 2003 and 2008, Africa’s economy grew on average by six per cent. These figures, of course, hide wide variations and there are still some shocking examples of countries ravaged by conflict and abuse of power. But, overwhelmingly, the trend in individual countries was upwards. As the shock waves of the financial crisis reached Africa, growth slowed and unemployment rose strongly. But even in 2009, sub-Saharan Africa’s economies grew by 2.1% and the World Bank is predicting a strong recovery this year.

There is no doubt, of course, that a major factor in this sustained growth has been increasing demand for Africa’s rich natural resources. This has been led by China, India and other fast developing nations. Where once investors may have seen only problems, they now see commercial opportunities. Africa can claim, over the last five years, to have become the new economic frontier.

But extractive industry is not the whole answer. Growth has been seen across a wide range of sectors. Increased external investment in infrastructure – again frequently led by Africa’s new partners – has helped. The principal driving force has, however, been from within the continent itself.

It has been African governments’ own commitment to sound economic management, encouraging investment and supporting enterprise which deserves most credit. Across the continent, governments have worked hard to create a stable economic environment which attracts investment from both within and outside its borders and where businesses can flourish. There is more to do. But I feel confident that the change is significant and lasting: witness Rwanda’s achievements, recognised by the World Bank last year as the country which had done most to reform its business environment on the planet.

This is not to dismiss the role that the major increases in international aid have played in Africa’s progress over the last five years. I am proud that the commitments made at the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005 have resulted in real improvements in the lives of millions of people on the continent through, for example, better health care or educational opportunities. Not everything promised has been delivered but in the hurry to demand commitments are met, we should not forget the impact of promises kept in communities across the continent.

But what the last five years has underlined is that the key message of that first Commission report holds true today: the continent will prosper best when African governments take the lead and the rest of the world supports them in their efforts. Indeed what has become even clearer since 2005 is that it is improved standards of governance rather than simply increased levels of aid which makes the most difference to the most lives.

For without good, accountable and honest government, aid is too often wasted, investment is discouraged and ambitions, however strongly held, are unmet. It is improved government which has driven economic growth. It is sound government, above all, which is needed to turn this increased national wealth into real improvements in the lives of its citizens.

Developed countries, of course, still have a role but it is to help provide the resources so African governments can invest in their citizen’s priorities.  As our new report underlines, aid which undermines national governments will fail in the long-term to promote development. Aid which strengthens their ability to deliver will succeed.

But to ensure improvements come quickly and fairly, we need to bolster the capacity of African governments to shape plans and deliver policies which will make a difference on the ground. Too often it is not the ambitions of the continent’s leaders which are at fault but the lack of capacity and systems to put them in place. Putting this right is the focus of my African Governance Initiative which is now working in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

I am proud of what the Commission for Africa has achieved. The commitments we made in 2005 have contributed to a stronger Africa. But we need to recognise that the real credit for Africa’s progress lies with Africans. Our job now is to support them in the vital next steps that could transform the continent and its place in the world, learning from the past as we build the future.’

Tony Blair is patron of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, a charity that works with the leaders of Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia (www.africagovernance.org)

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