Credits: Dave Clark/Oxfam

At last Africa plays a role on the global stage, but not the way it wanted to

At last Africa plays a role on the global stage, but not the way it would have loved to.

Akin to the assassination of John Kennedy or the September 2001 attack on the New York twin towers, people around the world can reminisce on what they were doing or where they were or more lately, what job they had, when the global financial crisis hit the stage.

First in the United States, then across Europe and most of the world, people, corporate entities and states watched with trepidation, as the financial crisis crept increasingly but surely nearer to ‘home’, like an ominous cloud determined to envelop the universe in its embrace. And surely all in its path was afflicted. The world never looked so helpless.

In Africa, and strangely too for a continent known for being susceptible to all forms of natural (and human) disasters, the ‘first wave’ of the financial crisis generally alluded the continent. This is because Africa is not so interlinked into the global financial system. Therefore it missed the domino effect of institutions collapsing in the west and dragging most of their partners around the world down with them.

But almost immediately, development organizations, including Oxfam, and research institutes and think tanks, started flagging the fact that Africa will not remain perpetually immune to the global financial scourge and that proactive measures need to be put in place for when it arrives the continent. Most of these calls fell generally on deaf ears.

Two weeks ago I had an unscheduled visitor to my office in Nairobi. Wangi is a man in his early 40s, married with 3 children aged 6, 9 and 14. Someone who knew someone had given my name to him and he had come to ask me for a job, any job, at Oxfam’s office for the Horn, East and Central Africa. He used to be employed in same company for the past 12 years and had just been laid off. As the sole bread-winner for his family, he can’t afford to stay out of job for a long time. I felt completely helpless, as I was unable to assist him in his mission. I tried to explain to him that as an international organization with strong recruitment ethics, we only recruit new staff in a transparent way, which means he’ll need to check the Oxfam website for any job opening. However, due to the global financial crisis, we’ve had to cut down on staff and programmes, so we don’t have that many openings as before.

Wangi left my office filled with more glum than when he came in. And I was left pondering about what many like Wangi must be going through across Africa: bread winner laid off, children unable to go to school and the entire family, struggling to eke out a living, unable to afford basic health services, struggling with the ever decreasing availability of water. Consider a family with an AIDs/HIV member to look after and the problems triple in magnitude.

The fact is that Africa is now squarely in the doldrums of the global financial crisis. In May 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dropped its ‘empirical’ bombshell: Africa’s economic growth will plummet because of the world economic downturn; growth in sub-Saharan Africa will slow to 1.5% in 2009.

And it’s expected that the economies in Africa will continue on this downward slope:

The impact of all these on Africa has been overwhelming, and quite different in severity to experiences in the West. Struggling and over-stretched essential services capability of most African countries have been further strained, leading to more reduced access to health, education and affordable drinking water. Women and children have bone the full brunt of the crisis more than others, for when husbands loose jobs in the formal sector women are often expected to work more in order to keep feeding the family. Children have to work to support their families when they face a loss in income, leading to increased school-drop out which will impact on the education and literacy drive of most African countries.

But there is hope… Hope that African states will use this unfortunate opportunity to reprioritise, institute and solidify good governance and accountability mechanisms, aimed at stimulating local economies across the board. Hope that African countries will stop relying so heavily on export-oriented production, which are extremely vulnerable to changes in the global market. Hope for this year’s G8 Summit will see its leaders put forward unambiguous support plans with concrete indicator benchmarks to help African countries not only to survive the impact of the global financial scourge, but to emerge from it more determined to forge feasible and sustainable economic growth and end chronic poverty in the continent.

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