The executive secretary of the economic commission for Africa spoke at GW as part of Elliott School’s annual David H. Miller Lecture.
February 24, 2016
Despite stereotypical images of Africa in the media, a more nuanced look at the continent reveals that Africa is evolving and making impressive economic strides, Carlos Lopes, the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, said at the George Washington University Tuesday evening.
“Africa’s narrative is changing. There is no doubt the continent has stepped into a new and higher growth projector. However, we’re currently writing Africa’s story,” he said.
Dr. Lopes discussed Africa’s structural transformation as part of the Elliott School of International Affair’s annual David H. Miller Lecture. The lecture honors the legacy of Mr. Miller, an alumnus who had a deep appreciation for Africa. The event also coincides with the Elliott School’s future plans of opening a center for African studies.
“We will plant the flag in the middle of Foggy Bottom to say that Africa is important to GW, and the world,” Elliott School Dean Reuben E. Brigety II said in opening remarks.
In his discussion, Dr. Lopes argued that patronizing views of Africa pose a deterrent to the continent’s interests. Africans, themselves, believe their achievements have been misconceived and undervalued.
In the past 10 years, Dr. Lopes said, sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP grew 51 percent when the rest of the world managed 23 percent. Statisticians continually have ranked African countries among the world’s fastest-growing economies.
But naysayers point out that African data is notoriously weak.
Dr. Lopes said that African economies are actually underrated. A recent World Economic study of 15 African countries found that when GDPs were rebased, or revised to account for outdated figures, they increased by an average of 3.24 percent. Multiplied across several years and in different countries, Africa’s combined GDP may be underestimated by about 21 percent, Dr. Lopes said.
With commodity prices tumbling and conflicts erupting across the continent, the picture in Africa may look bleak. Dr. Lopes explained that a slump in commodities is not as detrimental as some might believe—most African countries are not important exporters of commodities, and in the long run it is difficult to predict how the downturn will affect African development. Plunging prices may actually refocus attention away from commodities and toward more sustainable activities in Africa, he said.
“The case depends on whether we want a full picture or an easy perception of negativism about Africa,” Dr. Lopes said.
He added that Africa’s total foreign debt has been higher than 30 percent of GDP since 2010. However, the debt level is comparable to other countries and lower than several advanced economies.
In response to war and risk perception, Dr. Lopes explained conflict on the continent has decreased by about 14 percent, and the number of conflict-related fatalities dropped by about 10 percent. Violence against civilians remains a major source of instability—“not a pretty picture,” Dr. Lopes admitted.
But the number of causalities and conflicts is twice as high in Asia, he said, and many people don’t associate the Asian continent with violence.
Dr. Lopes said that it might be easier to resort to clichés about Africa’s development, but a more complex reading is necessary to move Africa’s structural trajectory forward.
“For now, let me invite you to read African reality with more candor,” he concluded.