I’m here today with Folashade Soule who is the Senior Research Associate at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. She is also a very, very valuable member of our team focusing on Africa for the Commission on Global Economic Transformation that INET sponsors. Welcome, Folashade. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
We are flooded with all kinds of concerns about the pandemic, but some of the reading that I do that is most distressing is how the underdeveloped countries, particularly in Southern Asia, and the continent of Africa are going to address this in their stage of development. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think the challenges are for Africa and how they’re doing. And what else, let’s say, subsequently, what is needed that isn’t able to be accomplished at this time?
Well, I think the African continent is facing this double crisis. First there’s a sanitary crisis, a health crisis, but also an economical. I also think the continent goes with an advantage somehow, the fact that the disease hasn’t spread as fast might give African countries more time. And that is what’s interesting about it because we are facing a global crisis, but with continents and populations who show very different demographic structures. And we can discuss this later on as well, more in detail.
But more importantly, the economic crisis that the continent is facing is a big one because the World Bank has forecasted that the continent will face its first recession in 25 years, between minus two and minus 5%. And given that there were already so many challenges, in terms of economic transformation on the continent, but also resolving inequalities across the continent have been quite slow. So there are more open questions nowadays of, what would the different policies be? Which effective policies will governments take in order to tackle the crisis and also the recession?
And will this crisis be a trigger in maybe changing the way things are being done currently by the governments, by African governments, and allow them to set up more specific policies for the youth to avoid various internal crises, the rise of populism? That is not something only European, but also African. So there are still many uncertainties in this global crisis.
One of the experiences you and I have shared was to attend the Mo Ibrahim Conference in the Ivory Coast last year. And I remember you pointing out to me, in preparation for that event, the information about, first, the demographic profile of the African continent. Second, the distance in age between those who govern and the average age of the population. And third, the surveys showing almost a complete lack of faith and trust that governance was addressing the problems of the future that these younger people saw as essential to their prosperity and confidence in the future. If those were the initial conditions, how did that affect what’s happening now and the ability to meet these both economic and sanitary challenges that you cite?
Well, when you compare the African population with those of Asia and Europe, there is a very different demographic structure, especially for the proportion of people over the age of 60. For Europe, in cases like UK, Spain, Italy, the proportion of people over the age of 60 is between 23 and 28%. Comparing that with the African continent, they have, let’s say, and I will just put it in question mark, so good fortune with this virus of having a population which is much better able to withstand the consequences of infection because, far younger in age, and with a proportion of people over 60 that range between four to 10%.
South Africa has the highest, 10.4%. And Rwanda is just 38% of the population that is over 60. If we look at it not from a sanitary crisis perspective, there’s a good fortune. But on the other hand, this is a population that will be much more affected by this economic crisis. And so, they will be the ones looking for opportunities. They will also be the ones triggering maybe civil unrest if the governments don’t provide them with effective responses. And so far, I think, and you said it well, there is a lack of trust. I would even say there’s a mistrust crisis on the continent towards the government, where…
African governments, they have what people usually call a gerontocratic crisis because most of the people in office are very old, close to sixties and more. And so, this mistrust towards the government is also a challenge because in this current crisis, the different information that will come from the government might not be… And it’s already the case, might not be accepted as true, but also as effective. There’s been a recent survey led by Afrobarometer or pan-African Survey Institute who came up with this resolve that most African populations, and especially the youth, consider that fake news also comes from the government and from political parties. And so, they don’t trust the government to provide effective solutions to the various crises, including this one.
So I think many African populations, and also [inaudible 00:08:31], they tend to rely more on messages coming from community leaders, religious organizations, mosques, churches, NGOs, or neighborhood associations, and other bodies to spread information about how to prevent infections, because just research has shown, and the latest Afrobarometer survey has also shown that population trusts health message more when these are delivered by local officials and entities rather than national governmental ones.
I know recently I read in the Economist that the chief economist of the World Bank, her name, I think it’s… Is it Pinelopi or Penny Goldberg-
… had resigned based on a study done by Scandinavian economists that said, essentially, when oil goes up in price, the oil rich producers/exporters from Africa receive money that’s largely the public, what you might call the public trust. But the inflow into Swiss bank accounts implying some sort of side payments and corruption blossomed, or how you say, rise very rapidly. And this paper I guess is what you might call symptomatic of the suspicion. Regardless of the evidence, the fact that people were actually pursuing that research agenda to try to shed light on it suggests a concern about the integrity of governments in those oil-rich countries.
Yes, absolutely. As we said earlier, there’s mistrust not only in terms of news and information coming from the governments in many countries, but also in terms of using effectively all this aid that will be dedicated to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. There’s even a name for that in… Well, I’m from Francophone, Africa, but on social media, they tend to call it already COVID business, talking about all this aid that will be coming in from various entities to tackle the crisis, and that will not necessarily be effective in providing the solutions for the various population because of corruption.
And so, that’s really an issue even before. Problem of corruption in Africa is something that has been quite debated on for a while. But many institutions like Transparency International and others have also been very much warding the various entities of providing aid that will target, but also that will attain the populations that are more in need of it.
Talk a little bit about the structure of the economic crisis. Does it come from the slow down in the advanced countries? Does it come from change in the relative price of the things that are produced or exported from Africa? But before we talk about things related to civil unrest, how does the crisis propagate to the continent, say, from the pandemic through all the different dimensions?
Yes. It’s important to look at it in a more granular way. Just like when analysts investigate how the crisis is affecting Europe or the US, they’re able to recognize the different nuances and complexities within these countries. So it’s the same in Africa. We are talking about a continent of 54 countries. So it’s very different from one country to another. But to give you some general trends, as I said it earlier, the continent is relatively less affected. There are, as we talk today, 63,000 cases, let’s say, confirmed cases. And most of them are concentrated in Northern Africa and in West Africa.
But it’s also important to mention that these countries have been very quick to set up preventive measures, and for various reasons. First, they have this knowledge of dealing with epidemics and pandemics, Ebola, HIV, and so on. And so, they’ve been able to set up some preventive measures like tracing, but also temperature check very early on. This was also one of the only measures they’ve had from a sanitary perspective because of the weak health systems, so that you could not afford the disease just to come in and to be spread all over and then not to have enough hospitals and facilities to deal with it.
So lockdowns have also been set up very early, and there’s where the issue comes because many of these lockdown policies have been copied based on the Western model. And many voices within these countries have said, “Well, we cannot adapt a one-size-fits-all strategy because African realities are very different.” So the lockdown option has been right in question on the continent, given the difference in age profile, but also the fact that they had to do a trade-off between health and economic issues.
So the crisis comes in this context because, first of all, we are talking about a continent where the informal sector is very high. We are talking about between 50 to 60% of people working in the informal sector. And so, they do not have the government helping them, necessarily, as we can see in Europe, or to some extent, in the US. And these people are living not in rural areas, but very often in urban slum areas where they’re living on a daily basis. And so that makes it even more difficult to have a lockdown policy for these people.
That is why there has been also some civil unrest in the sector, in Nigeria, in Kenya, in South Africa where the urban slum areas are the biggest ones. Lockdown policies have been adapted, more reliant on curfews to limit spread rather than forcing people to stay home, but also protecting the most vulnerable. So there have been many policies set up by African governments to provide some rescue to these people. At this stage, it’s not enough. And so, the economic challenge beyond the recession is how will this crisis affect the informal sector? Will the government be able to provide them? The informal sector is mainly composed of young people. So they are the ones composing this population, most important.
Okay. We talked months ago in light of these forces about the World Bank projections. We’ve talked a little bit about the chief economist resignation and so forth. Is the world bank at the fulcrum of what you might call a healthy multilateral reaction, what people would call a modern martial plan to help with the health systems and more importantly help with the economic development in the context of such severe stress? How do you envision the way in which the world will embrace Africa and make a positive difference? Or I shouldn’t say will, could embrace Africa and make a positive difference and putting them on much more promising trajectory?
I think there has been so far, let’s say, more or less strong multilateral support in terms of pledges on how to address this crisis in Africa. So not only the world bank, but also the IMF have been, let’s say, listening to African governments’ requests to either to suppress debt, to alleviate debt, or to set up a debt moratorium, a stand still for at least two years. The thing is African debt is not only… Let’s say, there’s a very important number of actors that possess African debt, to some extent, because it’s not only multilateral banks, but there are also private actors.
China is an important actor here. So, getting to multilateral support requires also different states coming together and agreeing on that. And so far this has not been the case for all of them, whether it’s in the United States of Donald Trump not allowing for some funds from the IMF to be dedicated. Some countries like China haven’t been very vocal and they haven’t been very firm on providing a solution to the debt crises. However, when I’m talking about multilateral support, it’s important to mention that other multilateral entities like the EU have also stepped up to provide some support. But also internally in Africa, like the African Development Bank, the West African Economic and Monetary Union.
They have also provided some credit lines, and response facilities, and social bonds. So I think there has been a global response, at least so far. Now, whether it’s the most effective one, now that’s still open to debate.
That brings me to the question of China. I know you’ve done a lot of work there, and you helped construct along with Justin Lin and the people at Beijing University, and obviously our colleague Camilla Toulmin, an event for a couple of days. What was it, December of 2018 in Beijing? You’ve been back there. You’ve been working on that. With the deterioration in US-China relations, and these global responses being necessary, whether it’s climate, or pandemic, or economic development, people are very, very concerned either in the context of not there being adequate, how do I say, cooperation, or alternatively that rivalry will take over.
Some nationalist Americans are very concerned about the role that China will play in Africa, in essence displacing the United States. Like I said, at the outset here, you’ve done some very deep dives in this realm, and I’m curious how you’re seeing what the pandemic implies for China and its relationship to Africa in the next phase?
Well, first, in light of this crisis, it has been very interesting to watch China surge, to some extent, in Africa to showcase how China has been effective in its lockdown policies. I mean, in the official discourse. Well, there have been many initiatives that were set up, whether it’s through philanthropists like the Jack Ma Foundation providing testing kits, PPEs, ventilators and so on, which African countries needed at that moment.
But there were also many other initiatives like learning initiatives, what we call south-south learning, video conferences between Chinese medical teams and Africa medical teams. Chinese medical teams who were also sent to Africa, officially to support African hospitals and medical teams. But at the same time also to protect Chinese interest on the continent. What is interesting to see is how this discourse has not been questioned by African populations in light of many issues.
First, there was how Africans have been treated recently in China, in Guangzhou, more specifically where there’s a very strong African community. There was a crisis that happened there mostly African students, were targeted by Chinese communities there, and accused of spreading the virus. And so, this has created a diplomatic crisis between China and Africa because many of these students were put on the street. They were not allowed to get into restaurants. They were some false lockdowns because, well, one of them had caught the virus. And so, in many of the mindsets of people there, all the Africans were spreading the virus along.
Now this has cast a shadow on this whole China narrative on the continent as being effective in containing the virus, in how it has been doing it, because this has created quite a diplomatic crisis. But beyond that, it showed two issues. First of all, that China-Africa relations are still very much government-to-government led. Sometimes there’s a spillover, people-to-people corporation, but this crisis, and I mention it because it has been so much debated on in social media that it’s mostly African populations that were spreading the news across and features something that is quite a complicated to deal with also in this period of crisis.
I think the second thing is that China-Africa relations have been… Well, first, China is Africa’s first trade partner. It’s also the fifth partner in FDI, in foreign direct investment. This crisis might change a few things. First of all, it would be interesting to watch whether China will first accept to do the debt alleviation and the debt moratorium requests, as the first trade partner and also as a country who owns most… Not most, but a large part of many African countries’ debts. So it would be interesting to see whether they will be able to adhere to those requests.
But also in terms of development corporation, it would be interesting to see whether there will be a shift, whether China will fund more health infrastructure in hospitals and so on, on the continent instead of hard infrastructure like roads, bridges, airports, harbors as it has been doing so far. What we’re witnessing now is that, well, there is, first of all, there has been, and that’s also globally speaking, there has been a slow down in trade relations between the two, especially in terms of export because African countries export mostly commodities, non agricultural commodities, and natural resources to China. So there has been a slowdown.
The oil price shock has also been affecting trade between these countries. There are still some of these projects that have been put on hold because they were already ongoing before the crisis. But I think there will be a shift in this corporation in terms of the nature of corporation and the nature of the different development corporation projects that will be set up. So that would be interesting to watch.
I guess to create a symmetric question, what role do you see the United States playing in response to the crisis in Africa? Are they playing a constructive role? Are they changing the role that they will play relative to what has been the recent history?
Well, that’s interesting because nowadays the role of the US in Africa has been very much analyzed through the lens of a competition between the US and China and Russia on the continent. The US, well, they have set up this policy, Prosper Africa. So far it hasn’t been carried out as fast, I would say, as what China has been doing through its various institutions and development banks. I think what is important to mention, however, is that the US has been also very quick to some aid, especially humanitarian aid, now to various African countries in order to allow them, well, to address the crisis.
They have even I think pledged… Not only pledged, but dispersed more aid, speaking in monetary terms, than China. But I think what China is doing is interesting because at least the way they’re doing it is that they focus a lot of attention on the visibility. I was telling you before about Jack Ma and his philanthropy, providing various kits, testing kits, and so on in the continent. Most of the Twitter accounts of African governments have been covering this. Many African institutions, they’ve set up even official ceremonies.
So this visibility aspect is something that the Chinese actors are doing a lot to showcase a development model, but also that they are doing things, that they are much more in the damage more concrete. On the other hand, the criticism that has been addressed to the US, but also more largely to the EU, is that while there’s a lot of money that has been sent, but it’s sometimes difficult to know where this money goes, in which projects. Another aspect is also the current US leadership that is not very attractive globally, but also in Africa.
President Donald Trump has had very hard words on African countries. And so, that doesn’t really help in terms of sending a positive image. I’m talking in terms of soft power. Another aspect is that US-Africa relations so far has been heavily focused on the security sector. So combating terrorism, sometimes also in collaboration with China, setting up military bases, protecting US assets. So it’s very different. I think the US is currently thinking about setting up the strategy to shift a bit more.
And also, just as China is doing, put a more important focus on infrastructure because that is what African governments are requesting. There’s an infrastructure gap on the continent, and China seems to be the one who’s listening more to the request of African governments on the contrary of other development partners who come and say, “No, this is what you need.” So, yeah.
Good. That’s fascinating. There’s an old Chinese adage that social unrest, civil unrest does not come from what you might call the circumstance that one has now. It comes from the despair of believing that your children will experience this misfortune or worse, meaning systemically the notion of opportunity and prosperous development is cut off. In that light, how do you see… I mean, you have been educated both in and outside of Africa. You’ve developed a very strong professional life associated with Oxford.
When we’ve been there together. I remember in the sessions that you organized, a gentlemen who worked in the hotel and restaurant business, primarily hotel, talked about how to create training at home, how to create labor-intensive opportunity at home. And so, with your own experience in mind, how do we create within Africa opportunity for young people? What are the necessary ingredients in the recipe towards a hopeful prosperity that might mitigate civil unrest in this acutely difficult time?
Well, I think there are many aspects. One thing that came out of these sessions is that most of, let’s say, the African job market is inadequate, to some extent, to what African universities in school are providing. Meaning that how Africans are trained at a national level, very often the degrees that they get and the different skills that they get are not matching the job requirements and what private sector needs there.
So I think there has been a change overall. There have been many institutions coming in to provide various type of training, but also universities locally. I’m thinking, for instance, of the African Leadership University, but also various joint collaborations between European or US entities with African institutes like Asheshi University in Ghana. They are one of the few, but maybe the first among others that are providing training and a curriculum that is based on solving issues instead of having these old curriculars.
Sometimes they date from the colonial period in some of the universities where there’s a very strong focus on theory and literature. And so it’s not that that is not important, but it’s not something that fits with African local realities in terms of problem-solving some of the issues. And so, this has created another issue that is brain drain on the continent, because, many of the various, let’s say the more skilled ones, sometimes they don’t find the jobs that they need. So many of them would just leave the continent and find some better opportunities abroad.
And so, skilled migration is also an issue. But also just to put it back to the context, now between COVID-19 crisis, Africa lacks many doctors and skilled medical professionals who are, for many of them, based in the US or in Europe. Let’s say, to put it in a nutshell, there’s a big problem, and creates, as you said, social unrest. But at the same time, there is some hope there. I would link to make a link with technology because many of the training that is offered on the continent now also has a very important focus on technology and technology skills.
This has been very useful in this crisis, using this technology. But it’s low technology like just sending SMS to people in the rural areas to inform them about the crisis and tell then what to do if they feel any signs of the disease, but also more high tech solutions like WhatsApp in South Africa that has been used as information. But just setting up also cash transfers program for the poor in countries like Togo. So there have been some initiatives that derive from the stronger focus on technology and putting technology at the center of some of the different training.
All these initiatives that I mention are most often set up by young people. So I think there is some hope there. But again, it will depend on how African governments, again, change the education system and how they follow up from one government to another, especially when we’re talking about democratic settings. But sometimes one government will set up a specific policy that has much promise. But the one who comes after that will just dismantle the policy and there won’t be any followups. So that might be a challenge.
Several times in this conversation, you’ve mentioned Jack Ma and his charitable work. I know Mike Spence, the co-chairman of our Commission on Global Economic Transformation, works closely with what is called the Luohan Academy, which is their philanthropic equivalent of think tank arm. And I’m curious because Mike sees a very clear vision that the traditional, what you might call East Asian model of manufacturing-led industry development is unlikely to take place in the world of global supply chains automation. Things won’t be as labor intensive if they’re competitive.
And so, Mike’s vision sounds just like… You actually anticipated my next question moments ago when you shifted to focus on technology because Mike thinks not only in providing quality information, but in essentially forming integrated markets through online systems that it could be a very, very vigorous development or impetus to transformation and growth in Africa. And I’m curious whether there are obstacles.
For instance, some have said Africa is many small countries that are linked and you need a kind of big internet infrastructure program like a public procurement for the whole continent to be integrated to achieve such a thing as a Luohan and Mike Spence are envisioning. How do you see the technological possibilities playing out and what are the necessary ingredients, the how do you say, platforms that need to be put in place so that it can blossom?
Well, I think before even talking about platforms, I think it’s important to have a view on what type of infrastructure is present on the continent that would allow for technology to be used as, let’s say, more efficiently. There’s a very important variation. Countries in East Africa use technology on a daily basis. I’m thinking about Mpesa in Kenya. Also some of people working in agriculture in Uganda, and Kenya, Tanzania, who are using all these various apps and technology on a daily basis for their work and so on.
But if you look more specifically, some of these regions, whether it’s Eastern Africa and Southern Africa, they’re also much more connected. The infrastructure is there, access to internet, speed. These environments allow for that. And so, I know that Jack Ma, but not only Jack Ma, also Mark Zuckerberg, and the CEO of Twitter have been very attracted, to some extent, to the continent and to the different opportunities that they think might arise there.
It depends on what we talk about when you talk about technology. When it’s a social media, there are some huge opportunities. The continent is more and more connected. Social media is used increasingly among the youth. WhatsApp is being used mostly in order to share information. And this stems also from, I would say, a deeper integration into globalization for many of these regions. So I think really it’s, I wouldn’t say, a case by case analysis that should be done here, but a sub regional one.
I think we should also be a bit more careful about considering that technology is a solution for so many things and there will be a great replacement, because so far there have been some initiatives, especially in the education sector, where technology has been used but hasn’t been effective, especially in the classroom for many. So I think it still remains open for discussion, but conditions would be first that the right infrastructures are set in place, but also that there’s digital policy from the government on how to use technology to better improve social conditions of the population, education, and so on. In my opinion, those are the two key foundations for effective use of technology for development.
Well, I did notice in my earlier question, your modesty when I talked about you as part of the example of how people meet the development challenge in their own life, and that I think you’re a beacon of someone who’s very successful in that regard. If you were, how would you say, broadcasting some guidance to, say, your nieces and nephews or younger neighbors back in Benin, given the experience you had, what would you tell them in terms of what path they should strike out on in light of the challenges before us?
Wow, that’s a very interesting question. I think the younger populations, whether it’s in Benin, or also West Africa now, now we are in a phase where we are questioning the future in light of this crisis. We ask ourselves, will African governments be able to respond to this? We have witnessed already, for people who were born in the eighties, we’ve witnessed already so many crises. We had the financial crisis in 2008, several pandemics, epidemics. So we are living in an age of uncertainty. And then we ask ourselves, “Well, what type of world are we into, and what will be the future?”
I think a crisis like this, for myself, but also for the African youth, presents us with both, of course, a crisis, but also an opportunity to see what are the different measures. How can we use this opportunity to design measures or to influence the government to design the right policies which fit with the characteristics of our own populations. How can that be negotiated by the youth? It’s important to recognize now the fragility of past patterns of economic growth on the continent. The fact that our governments have been way too focused on building hard infrastructure and using the budget for funding other things instead of providing the right health infrastructure currently.
So I think having, and I will make a link with your previous question on technology, social media can be used now to address directly a minister, a president, something that wasn’t possible before. So I think that’s a tool that is very much used by civil society of all but also by artists. We organize for the Commission on Global Economic Transformation, this hearing in Dakar late January at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop. It’s very interesting to see there now.
I’ve seen pictures how there have been some artistic youth movements who have been using different walls of the university to showcase some, not only messages, health messages, but also how to voice their frustration towards the government because it’s quite frustrating to see and to ask ourselves how a continent that rich is still obliged to ask for aid and debt moratorium, whereas I think it’s time for many of them and for all of them, actually, to provide solutions and be at the driver’s seat.
So I think those will be the measures to use this opportunity to address directly a message to the various governments that this is really a momentum for setting up the right policies for Africa’s global economic transformation to be beneficial to all, and especially to the youth.
Well, Folashade, I can say, for my own organization, and to our listeners, that I have, how would I say, sensed the importance of Africa, but I had little experience in knowing how to address it. And the work that you and Camilla Toulmin, who I’ll speak with later this week, have done together has really raised INET’s awareness, and you organized events. You’ve been my teacher, and you’ve been a very, very important contributor to the work that we do.
And I want to alert our listeners to the fact that in this next year, we will be writing substantial reports about the challenges in Africa, and there is absolutely no way that we could have done it or done it as well as we will. And that’s a forecast of confidence in you. But we would not have done it or done it as well if you hadn’t been at the center of our exploration and brought your guidance, your gifts, your discipline, and your awareness to the challenge. So I want to thank you for that and I want to thank you for being my guest here today, and I look forward to making another episode with you in not too many months forward, where we can take another look at this very, very important dimension of the health of mankind in this world. Thanks for being here today.
Thank you. Thank you, Rob. It has been a pleasure to discuss with you today on this topic of Africa and the COVID-19 situation, and overall also working with you on INET’s Commission on Global Economic Transformation. I think this podcast, and I’ve been listening to what you have been doing so far, is really great in terms of bringing in various profiles and making economics more inclusive for everyone. So thank you for that.
Yeah, I think we’ve got to go beyond where we were. You’re welcome and thank you for being a part of it. We do have to go beyond where we’ve been.
I think the world is beckoning right now, and we have to rise to that call of action. And you’re an essential ingredient in the response that I would craft. We’ll talk again soon. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you.