Over the past decade, African countries have experienced varying economic and political fortunes. Several economies, such as the ones of Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda and the United Republic of Tanzania, have experienced growth rates between 8 and 10 percent while making major progress in the areas of health and education. Others however, such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and, more recently, South Sudan, have suffered precipitous declines in living standards and worsening human development trends.

Why is it that progress eludes so many African countries, and what can be done to reverse these troubling trends? Only by understanding the root causes of the problem is it possible to transform the continent’s many deep-seated challenges into opportunities. Such opportunities would allow for Africa’s diverse, dynamic, creative, and innovative populations to create value, promote economic growth, and improve living standards.

Changing the Civic Mindset

Adopting a “can do” mind set is a prerequisite if Africa is to transform its fortunes. For far too long, Africa’s leaders have been blinkered by orthodox approaches, reluctant to embrace new approaches to growth and development. By contrast, the positive and self-reliant “can do” attitude of Asian economies, especially the so-called "Asian Tigers," has generated rich rewards, engendering many powerful emerging economies. The experience of these countries underlines the importance of taking ownership of a country's own development and to galvanize its capacities and resources in a concerted effort to boost economic performance and living standards. Modifying mind sets, however, is a notoriously challenging process. Some believe revolution is the only way to do so–especially where corruption is rife. Others highlight the benefits of cultivating a more entrepreneurial mentality among students and young people to ensure that Africa’s private sector thrives.

At a meeting organized by the African Leadership Institute, Thabo Mbeki, a former President of South Africa noted that “Africa has the resources and human capital to turn the 21st century into the African century”. We Africans must believe that we can rise to the challenge and that we can all contribute to transforming the continent’s fortunes. We need to embrace the fact that Africa has the capacity to find solutions to the challenges it faces.

While adopting a more positive and proactive outlook will not occur overnight, there are a number of steps that can be taken to help pave the way. Although literacy rates are low across Africa, radio programs and traditional get-togethers are invaluable means to inform and educate the public about critical every-day issues such as healthcare, water conservation, agricultural best practices, etc. Stories, puppet shows, music, and concerts are all effective means of conveying messages and ensuring that such messages take root in the minds of local people while bringing about bring about social, political, and economic change within communities.

Policymakers and community leaders also have a key role to play in shaping perspectives at the community level. For example, when a tribal chief asked his President to instruct the Ministry of Health to post female staff to his area to attend to the local women, his request was met with an emphatic “no." The President said he would not send other people’s daughters unless the chief sent the girls in his community to school. This ultimatum brought about a significant shift in local cultural practice because, under the Chief’s guidance, parents stopped marrying their daughters young—preferring to send them to school to get an education and the healthcare they needed.

These isolated examples demonstrate what can be achieved when Africans put their minds to something. Such shifts in perspective are necessary across Africa if the Continent it so raise living standards and realize its full potential. Poverty can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction.

Moving Away From Dependency

While countries in Africa have enjoyed political independence for decades now, some continue to be emotionally dependent on former colonisers. There is, however, no future in perpetuating such dependency, which belongs to another era. Some suggest this is an addiction to foreign aid and lay the blame for this squarely on lacklustre African leaders. Africa’s future depends on breaking this addiction. If Africa is to thrive, policy-makers need to focus their energy not on winning ever-declining development assistance, but on exploring ways foster entrepreneurialism in Africa and to developing its private sector.

While development assistance plays a role, many African countries and donor agencies alike have fallen into the foreign aid trap. All too often the first reflex of policymakers is to call for outside assistance to resolve problems, in blind belief that such action will suffice. Unfortunately, all too often such blind faith has proven misplaced. The experience of the Millennium Villages project illustrates the risks that policymakers expose themselves to when they hand over responsibility to external donors. The UN Millennium Villages initiative, a five year plan touted as a new approach to fighting poverty, sought to increase economic growth through food production, health care, and education. In spite of its laudable intentions, the sponsors of the initiative stubbornly continued despite evidence that the initiative was failing to achieve its stated goals. Instead of pulling the plug on the initiative, the sponsors simply moved the goal posts and sought additional funding. To avoid repeating such costly mistakes, African leaders need to focus attention on creating an enabling environment that stimulates and attracts investment. We need to focus on encouraging local angel investors and venture capitalists to ensure that our fledgling companies can attract the resources they need to develop their operations. African governments also need to continue to encourage and strengthen public-private partnerships, such as the 40-year old collaboration that has existed between the De Beers diamond company and the Government of Botswana, the proceeds of which have enabled Botswana’s economy to thrive and attain the economic status of a middleincome country.

Every effort should be made to both stimulate the involvement of the local business community and to harness local resources. The Kenyan tradition of “harambee,” meaning “all pull together” in Swahili, and the self-help initiatives it has inspired, including in the areas of education, health, and infrastructure, offer interesting examples of what can happen when Africans pull together to resolve the challenges they face.

By adopting an harambee-like approach African countries can start focusing on devising innovative solutions that add value to local products such as fruit, coffee, tea, and cocoa. In this respect, the experiences of Kenya and Rwanda are instructive. Both has been successful in transforming their abundant local resources into high value products and are now reaping the financial benefits of such an approach, which in turn fuels the development of their respective national economies.

Focusing On Action

While the Continent’s policy makers have proven very talented in formulating policies, they have not enjoyed equal success in the implementation of these policies. This can be attributed to a number of factors:

• First, many least developed countries suffer a genuine lack of resources and capacity to translate policies into reality, even in core areas of agriculture, education, and health. It is all too common to find one single official tasked with the implementation of multiple projects in all three sectors. This unworkable situation means that progress is slow at best and will likely grind to a halt in the officer’s absence.
• Second, new faces occupying senior-level government posts is a common consequence of the frequent re-shuffling of government positions. Recent appointees are keen to disassociate themselves from the past and often want to start with “a clean slate." Regrettably, in so doing, many good projects and ideas disappear or fade into the obscurity of bureaucratic limbo.
• Third, implementation can be hampered as a result of inadequate risk analyses at the design stage of a project. For example, implementation of a tobacco project in western Kenya was hindered by the fact that a road cut straight through the project site. The population on one side of the road perceived tobacco negatively, and those on the other side, while their views toward tobacco were more liberal, had no experience in planting the crop. Those responsible for designing and implementing the project had not understood how critical working with communities and understanding their beliefs could be to the successful design and implementation of development projects.
• Fourth, project implementation is almost certainly affected by changes in government policies and priorities, as well as by a civil war. In such cases, projects may easily come to a standstill, as witnessed in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

African leaders and policymakers need to adopt a more measured, results-oriented approach that focuses on developing and implementing projects that will generate realistic, tangible, and sustainable benefits for the communities concerned.

Notwithstanding these constraints, African leaders and policymakers need to adopt a more measured, results-oriented approach that focuses on developing and implementing projects that will generate realistic, tangible, and sustainable benefits for the communities concerned.

Learning By Example

Amid the many challenges confronting Africa, there are a number of success stories that may serve as sources of inspiration for policymakers. For example, the West African River Blindness Programme, conducted from 1974 to 2002, was an outstanding success. Its implementation is an excellent example of sound cooperative governance. The programm, which lasted 28 years, directly involved 11 countries and 32 partners. Its success is attributable to good governance and, in particular, to transparency in all financial dealings and rigorous implementation of planned activities.

The role played by the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in liberating Liberia from its brutal civil war offers another source of inspiration. Without the intervention of ECOMOG, it would have been all but impossible to achieve agreement among the warring parties in that vicious conflict and to organize elections in 1997.

The M-PESA mobile phonebased system for money transfer and microfinancing offers a third example of how Africa can find innovative solutions to its problems and have an impact on practices elsewhere. Established by Safaricom and Vodacom in Kenya, M-PESA enables those with no chance of opening a conventional bank account to pay bills and make financial transactions within Kenya and beyond. The concept is now gaining traction around the world as a convenient way for individuals to settle their bills.

Study tours where officials are sent abroad to gather new ideas and practices for adaptation to the national context is yet another practical means of bringing about the changes need in African policy and practice. While it is not always the case, by nominating the right people for these tours, it is possible to generate valuable feedback reports that can generate constructive and fruitful discussion. To be effective, study tours need to be well planned and the feedback reports of participants carefully reviewed to ensure any useful insights are captured.

If Africa is to transform its development landscape from one littered with failed development projects to one that cultivates success stories, its policymakers need to adopt a cool-headed, open, and pragmatic approach underpinned by incisive analyses of what works and what does not work in different cultural settings. In Africa, we need to embrace the idea that that our “home grown” ideas have as good a chance as any, if not a better one, of solving the challenges we face.

Ensuring Quality Leadership

Effective leadership is the key to transforming the economies of developing countries and to Africa’s success in fostering economic growth and improving living standards. Corruption, however, continues to be rife in many countries, and many others are ill equipped to manage the affairs of state properly. In Africa, we do not need look far for examples of inspiring leadership. The late Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, for example, believed in Africa, the importance of collective leadership, and in giving credit where credit is due. Through his efforts, South Africa has emerged as a rainbow state embracing everyone regardless of race, colour, ethnicity or religion. His qualities of leadership have transformed a region socially, economically and politically.

Over the last 50 years, Africa has been a laboratory for failed development experiments, such as the structural adjustment programmes piloted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In the wake of this experience, it is up to the African people to take charge of their own destiny and to develop their continent. With a view to ensuring that Africa is a full partner in its development and not just a recipient of hand-outs, former South African President Thabo Mbeki and his colleagues spearheaded the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001. To date, NEPAD’s success has been partial. If we are to translate NEPAD’s aspirations into reality, we must change our mind set; we must break the bondage of dependency; we must overcome the foreign aid trap; we must talk less and do more, learn from best practices and elect honest leaders who can drive development and add value to Africa’s rich resource endowments. Only then can we change outside perceptions of Africa and make the world believe that we are a “can do” continent.