Conscious of the important role knowledge plays in efforts aimed at reducing poverty and improving economic growth, the African Development Bank (AfDB) Group, in collaboration with other institutions, undertook a study at the turn of the century that culminated in a book entitled “Can Africa Re-Claim the 21st Century.” The study concluded that sub-Saharan Africa entered the 21st century with huge deficiencies. With most of the world’s poorest countries located on the continent, there was a need to lay emphasis on research and knowledge sharing with a view to breaking the vicious circle of ignorance, disease and poverty. At the turn of the century, average income per capita was lower than it was at the end of the 1960s. Incomes, assets, and access to essential services were unequally distributed. And the region contained a growing share of the world’s absolute poor with little power to influence the allocation of resources. Moreover, many development issues remained largely confined to Africa. These problems included lagging primary school enrollments, high child mortality, and endemic diseases – including malaria and HIV/AIDS – that imposed huge costs on the continent that were at least twice those in any other developing region. Besides, one African in five still lived in a country severely disrupted by conflict.

Furthermore, Africa’s place in the global economy was constantly eroding, with declining export shares in traditional primary products, little diversification into new lines of business, and massive capital flight and loss of skills to other regions. The study observed that many countries had made important economic reforms, improving macroeconomic management, liberalizing markets and trade, and widening the space for private sector activity. Where these reforms had been sustained – and underpinned by civil peace – they had raised growth and incomes and poverty had been rolled back.

Based on this grim outlook, the AfDB leadership made knowledge management a key pillar in its repositioning and restructuring exercise. To help fill in the knowledge gap on the continent, the AfDB launched the Annual African Economic Conference in November 2006 in Tunis, Tunisia, where policy-makers, economists and researchers from across the globe where brought together to share their experiences and knowledge. The 2007 conference took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where representatives of the continent’s Diaspora joined their colleagues on the continent to underscore the importance of research in development efforts. Researchers at the Addis Ababa meeting used the occasion to underscore the role the Diaspora could play in development efforts on the continent.

Through the AEC, the Bank Group explores in-depth selected topics of relevance for Africa’s economic development. The AEC provides the Bank Group with a mechanism for generating research products based on previous Bank Group investments and/or collaboration with other networks and research institutions with expertise in the topics in question. The initiative of organizing economic conferences on the continent is a strategy aimed at helping national policy-makers work with researchers across the globe in order to achieve faster and better economic results.