Citizen participation necessary for economic growth, Meles Zenawi symposium hears

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Trade, regional integration and governance were some of the key subjects that took centre stage at the Meles Zenawi Foundation’s inaugural symposium on Friday, August 21 in Kigali, Rwanda.

During a panel on “The Developmental State in a Globalised World”, Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), said trade barriers between nations were inhibiting growth and development on the continent. “Tariffs are an issue; free movement of people and goods is an issue, yet these are the low-hanging fruits,” he said.

These barriers have led to low level intra-African trade, which stands at around 10 percent, compared to 60 percent, 40 percent and 30 percent intra-regional trade achieved by Europe, North America and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, respectively, according to the African Union.

Similarly, regional integration should be considered as a critical ingredient for Africa’s economic growth, said Jendayi Frazer, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. However, the slow pace at which integration is taking place is an issue of concern. “The continent is not experiencing the scale and speed of integration that is necessary for global competition, and African countries are going to have a hard time to compete globally without regional integration,” she warned.

The continent is also challenged with conflict, which has an impact on efforts to achieve inclusive growth. The failure to address conflict is a “huge drop in the peace across Africa”. Frazer pointed out that the conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Burundi have created a negative narrative that is affecting neighbouring economies.

“Countries that are doing well, but are bordered by countries at war, have to spend their time and resources trying to bring about peace, while these resources could have been used to deliver development,” said Frazer. She singled out Kenya, which for years has been involved in peace processes for neighbouring South Sudan and Somalia.

Participants of the symposium heard that a good number of countries in conflict are those that engage in rent-seeking, and most of them are rich in resources including oil, gas, among others. They are the most unequal countries on the continent, according to President Kaberuka. “In South Sudan it is not about ethnic conflict,” he said. “It is fundamentally about who controls the rent. Rent-seekers are fighting without caring about the citizens.”

The greatest issue in such cases is the lack of transparency to populations, said AfDB’s Acting Chief Economist and Vice-President, Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa, who moderated the panel. Kayizzi-Mugerwa underscored the need for deliberate policies to address inequalities and promote social inclusion; policies that enhance democracy and accountable governments.

This was also emphasised by Olufemi Mimiko, former Vice-Chancellor of Adekunle Ajasin University in Nigeria, who observed that deep democracy involved bringing in citizens to be part of the process of economic development. “Even though Africa has achieved economic growth over the years, the growth is not percolating. There is no impact and improved quality of life. Populations want to access basic services, they want to see development that creates jobs,” he said.