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From L to R: McArthur, Diop, Sanders, Simons, Prendergast, and Sy

From L to R: McArthur, Diop, Sanders, Simons, Prendergast, and Sy (who is cut off)

Yesterday, I ventured down the street to the Brookings Institution for my first policy event of the year, ‘Top Priorities for Africa in 2014.’  The panelists (of which there was a large number) were quite impressive: Former US Ambassador to Nigeria and the Congo, Robin Sanders, Co-Founder of the Enough Project, John Prendergast, Bright Simons, President of a technology start-up in Ghana, Makhtar Diop, VP for Africa at the World Bank, and Amadou Sy, a Senegalese resident at Brookings.  John McArthur did an able job filling in for the flu-stricken Helene Cooper as moderator.

While it was good to get back in the swing of things and hear from the prominent speakers, the broad nature of the topic, the large number of panelists, and the limited time available led to a lot of broad generalizations and generic prescriptions for the continent’s development.  As I’ve said at similar events before, I’m sure that most of those in the audience would have been qualified to make the same remarks.

Makhtar Diop, a distinguished Senegalese economist personified that trend.  He noted that Africa has been growing fast but that growth needs to be more inclusive.  He noted that areas most in need of intervention on the continent include agriculture, energy, and the informal sector in urban areas.

Echoing remarks that I recall the World Bank Africa Chief making at Brookings several months ago, Diop noted that external investors perceive a greater level of risk on the continent than actually exists.

I found myself wondering – is any of this really unique to 2014???

Bright Simons, a technological entrepreneur from Ghana was probably the highlight of the panel in that he was actually willing to be at least mildly adventurous and make some predictions about the major narratives that would emerge this year.

He noted (and as a reluctant development worker I was pleased to hear) that he believes 2014 will mark the shift of the application of technology in Africa from a humanitarian perspective and toward a capitalistic one.  As Simons noted, so many of those outside of Africa have a ‘sentimental’ view of the power of technology for the continent.  The idea that technology can be applied to ‘leapfrog’ stages of development that more developed economies went through may have some elements of truth, but appears to me (and it seems to Simons as well) to be a bit simplistic.

One specific point made by Simons is that he expects African governments to significantly increase their expenditures for the procurement of IT goods.

Robin Sanders followed, making some remarks that conflicted with those of Simons and which emphasized the positive role that smart phones can have in allowing farmers to check market prices.  Sanders added that in addition to information communication technology, she would like 2014 to bring greater attention to housing development and tertiary and vocational training in Africa.

John Prendergast, known for his work in Central Africa and friendship with George Clooney spoke on security issues.  His overarching point was that the world has ‘a broken international crisis response system.’  He critiqued the powers that be for focusing only on major armed groups, neglecting civil society and not being fully aware of the regional dimensions of African conflicts (which given the emphasis that Rwanda has in the conflicts of the Congo that he works so much on, I’m not sure where that feeling came from).  He cited the negotiations in Ethiopia on the South Sudan conflict as an example.

Amadou Sy (another Senegalese) of Brookings followed.  I was in a daze for most of his talk where he asked rhetorical questions about value chains, dissected illicit financial flows, and spoke in praise of regional integration.

I stayed for just the first round of Q&A, where the questions did not get much more specific – focusing on how to help small scale farmers in Africa and how to bridge political and cultural divides in African countries.

Kudos to Brookings for putting this event together and getting these folks to interact with the public.  I only wish that these events were a bit more focused and reflected an in-depth command of the issues that everyone always tries to give the impression they are so knowledgeable about.

While the beginning of the year is certainly an appropriate time for this sort of event, I can’t help but thinking that treating Africa in this monolithic way only serves to reinforce the foundation for the various types of concerns that the panelists raised about external perceptions and treatment of the continent.  To their credit, Brookings has released a report that seeks to get beyond that.

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