President’s AfDB Annual Meetings blog - “For the well-being of a billion people...”

29/05/2013
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Day 2

Discussions continue throughout the night at the Bank’s Annual Meetings in Marrakesh: some may be had around the dinner table, but most are round the desk. Keyboards are pounded, while mobile phones reverberate. I stopped working on my opening ceremony speech at just before 3 o’clock this morning, and had been on the phone to at least five of my staff in the hours after midnight.

Any personal fragility or fatigue is no excuse for not talking about fragile states, and the formal day began just before 8 when I met the High Level Panel which I have set up, to look at how we can do more to support the 200 million Africans who live in official “fragility”. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia chairs the group, but could not be with us today. I frequently repeat the refrain that fragility is contagious and debilitating, and the work of this Bank in its most vulnerable member countries – largely through the superlative work of the African Development Fund – is its most important.

The BBC’s Zeinab Badawi probed one issue which can bring fragility to even the most robust of states, when she hosted a full 45-minute debate on the topic of corruption. I was joined by Obi Ezekwesili, co-founder of Transparency International and now head of the World Bank’s Africa Division, and Kerfalla Yansane, the Finance Minister of Guinea. It takes a woman to get to the point, and Obi transformed the debate: “Let’s put an end to this conversation. Corruption has no colour – it’s not just an African problem.” And we agreed on its solution, wherever you are in the world: strong and sound institutions, of the type that we are supporting in the Bank.

The day’s schedule was already running late when I met the Ivorian Prime Minister Daniel Duncan to talk about the Bank’s proposed return to Abidjan. Governors will take their decision on this tomorrow: we know full well that we want to return the Bank to the headquarters in which it was established in 1964 – and ideally in time for the 50th anniversary – but we know, too, that two principles will decide what we do. The Bank must be able to continue its business uninterrupted, not least on the capital markets; and it must be able to guarantee the security and welfare of its most prized asset – its staff. We will do the right thing at the right time.   

Our lunchtime presentations gave the strongest evidence that we are doing just that. Pierre van Peteghem, the Belgian who runs our Treasury Department, made a compelling case not just for the triple-A rated Bank both of prudence and innovation, but for the Bank which seeks at every turn to maximize its development impact on the continent. Eloquent as he was, his slides did much of the talking: I was struck by the graph which showed African and Asian growth both standing at exactly 6.6% last year – the significant difference being that the Asian graph is heading south, while the African trajectory heads upwards. Have we done enough to meet the MDGs? he was asked, and had to answer No: that would take 10 straight years of 7% annual growth. But he and Simon Mizrahi, the Briton who is my Director of Quality Assurance and Results, set out both the substance and the flavour of what we have done. When our 100 kilometres of electricity connection lines from Ethiopia to Kenya cut 7 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and wire up 1.4 million households – or when our 500 kilometres of refurbished feeder roads in Uganda raise a farmer’s income by an average 50% – then lives are being bettered, and we can quantify that.   

But not everything is quantifiable, and the essence of the BBC live debate hosted by the Ghanaian Komla Dumor this afternoon was rather more subjective. “Is this Africa’s hour?” was the question asked of me, President Kagame of Rwanda, the telecoms entrepreneur and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, and Pravin Gordhan, South African Finance Minister. And of course it took the businessman and the iconoclast among us – my old friend Mo – to play the role that Obi had played in the morning. “Africa is rich, but its people are poor”, he said. “Have no illusions as to why China is so active in Africa – we would do the same to promote our own interests. There is a serious leadership deficit in Africa.”  

It was President Kagame who asked the question that framed so much of the discussion: “Why do we ask so many questions about our relationship with the rest of the world, and so few about how little we have to do with each other?” We spoke at length about the lack of regional economic integration that so holds back this continent, and I took to my new-found Twitter account to repeat the words that came to me on the podium: “with 54 passports and 54 borders, our continent cannot compete”. That is why nearly a quarter of the Bank’s work builds both the “hard” and the “soft” aspects of regional infrastructure – from running all of NEPAD’s and PIDA’s infrastructure projects, to developing the regional “software” in the form of things like Free Trade Agreements among COMESA, the EAC and SADC, and the West African Monetary Zone Payment system. How will we measure our success? asked Pravin Gordhan, with an answer already on his lips: “by the well-being of a billion people, and an economic system that is socially just”.  

I repeat that to myself now, in the small hours of the morning again, having just got back from an evening event in which Ozwald Boateng’s Made in Africa Foundation recognized the Bank’s work in infrastructure. This honours the work of my staff, and it justifies us in the choices we have made about what to do and how to do it. And we know full well why we do it: “for the well-being of a billion people”.