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No real development in Africa without regional integration

UN’s Assistant Secretary-General Ahunna Eziakonwa is the new Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She spoke to Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor on issues pertaining Africa’s socio-economic development.

In the recently released World Economic Situation and Prospects for 2018 report, Africa’s economic growth for 2019 is projected at 3.4%, a marginal increase of 0.9% from 2018. What do countries need to do to accelerate economic growth?

Low productivity is a problem. There must be higher uptakes in innovations and new technologies to propel productivity in the agriculture and small-scale enterprises. Agricultural modernization in most countries is low, as it is still rudimentary, not capitalized and not commercialized. This means we have a huge potential there. The continent’s economies are vulnerable to the volatility of commodity prices in the global market. That’s why diversification is the solution. Africa must diversify its agricultural products, and add value to its primary commodities and exports to avoid exporting its jobs to the rest of the world.

In 2003 African leaders met in Maputo, Mozambique, and agreed to invest at least 10% of their national budgets in agriculture. Only a few countries have met that commitment. Why is this so?

Fifteen years after the Maputo Declaration, only seven countries—Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Malawi, Senegal and Zambia—have consistently met this target. In fact, countries like Malawi even went beyond the target, achieving as high as 21% in 2013 compared to the average of 3.1% for sub-Saharan Africa. Several factors account for underinvestment in agriculture in Africa. The implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme in Africa reduced agriculture financing; low international funding of agriculture weakens policy space for agricultural spending; low political will to accelerate input subsidies, expand extension workers, research and rural infrastructure, and high lending rates limit small-scale farmers’ access to finance. Land reform is key to address fragmentation and maximize the benefits of economies of scale in land use. African governments must be given policy space to invest in agriculture and agribusinesses to propel economic diversification.

Land distribution negatively affects women yet there are more women than men engaged in agriculture. What can countries do to remedy the situation?

We must abrogate all laws that are obstacles to women engaging and being integrated in the formal economy. Women need affirmative action to be relieved of some cultural duties so they can have time to further their education to compete in the economy. Real financial investment in a deliberate way to systematically support women’s education is important. Political empowerment is very important, too. We have seen countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia moving in this direction. This must cut across public and private sectors. UNDP’s Gender Equality Seal standardization exercise, which has been launched in countries like Uganda, is geared to promote gender equality in workplaces.

What unique attributes do women bring to the table?

Well, when you ask some of the African presidents who have appointed women, they say, “Women are less corrupt, and you get more accountability in the use of resources when you employ a woman.” Plus, women are the ones who are basically managing the lives of their families in many countries.

Currently 52 countries have signed the framework agreement for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), but only 22 countries have ratified the agreement. What could Africa derive from a free trade area?

I don’t see the future of development in Africa without successful regional integration. It’s probably one of the most significant steps that the continent has taken to address its market paradox. Even though Africa’s population is over 1.2 billion and it is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, our markets are small and fragmented and don’t stand a chance to compete internationally unless they have the collectiveness. So Africa trading with Africa will increase our competitiveness in terms of global trade.

What is the UN doing to encourage holdout countries to join AfCFTA?

The UN, led by the Economic Commission of Africa, supports the free trade area. UNDP firmly believes holdout countries need to get more information on how this will affect them so that they can make informed decisions on how to be fully engaged in the process.

Tell us about UNDP’s work in Africa currently.

UNDP is in every single African country. We see ourselves as a companion for countries in their development journeys. We support communities to build better livelihood opportunities, and we support the youth in entrepreneurship and work with countries to de-risk the investment climate. Over the past five years, our efforts to increase access to electricity have reached 3.35 million Africans in 3,472 communities.

Can you name one or two countries where you have recorded outstanding successes?

Many success stories come to mind, such as Enterprise Uganda, established by UNDP more than 20 years ago. It’s now an independent body with a capacity to help institutions to grow into enterprises. In Ethiopia, UNDP helped establish the country’s first commodities exchange, which has grown into a multimillion-birr [Ethiopian currency] enterprise, and the Ghana Stock Exchange is one of the highest-performing in Africa.

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