Business has responsibility and opportunity in Africa

This year may determine the future of Africa. The question is whether the conversation continues to be one of disillusion and despair, or whether a unique convergence of events leads to reawakening, revival, and renewal.

The final report of the 17-member international Commission for Africa, issued in March, put forth wide-ranging and uncompromising recommendations. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who set up the commission last year, is committed to placing Africa at the top of his agenda during Britain's presidency of the G-8 group of industrialized democracies and the European Union. He now has the material with which to work.

But does the will exist to move from rhetoric to result? Governments, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations have key responsibilities. Are we in business ready, willing, and able to help? And why should we care?

There is an exciting business opportunity. African leaders, increasingly elected democratically, know they must commit themselves to good governance, investment, and economic growth. There have been big improvements in macroeconomic performance. Growth in gross domestic product will exceed 5 percent in 2005. The commission report should result in a big increase in investment, particularly for infrastructure. A successful completion of the Doha round will stimulate trade with and within Africa. Almost 900 million people will see the growth in their disposable incomes accelerate. Bold and early businesses will be rewarded.

Business has a responsibility to engage with Africa and its challenges. The ambitions for Africa cannot be achieved without widespread business partnership. We must be an active part of the communities where our consumers live. We must contribute to the wider society on whose goodwill we depend. The Commission for Africa declaration says, "We ... find the condition of the lives of the majority of Africans to be intolerable and an affront to the dignity of mankind." When trust in business and its leadership is very low, we must not reinforce perceptions of greed and short- termism.

For those who remain skeptical, not to say deeply cynical, and see only corrupt politicians, incompetent administrators, and unskilled workers, let me offer three wholly selfish and self-centered reasons they should care.

Africa is the epicenter of a clash of religious beliefs: Islam and Christianity. Two communities that lived peacefully together for many centuries are in danger of slipping into mutual hatred and killing. Business needs to be a force for healing not horror, through engagement and investment - otherwise the ensuing chaos will eventually engulf our prosperous ghettos.

Second, migration can unbalance societies and undermine security. Migration is most effectively dealt with at source, by helping to ensure there is opportunity and hope, bread and jobs, - not hunger and guns. In sub-Saharan Africa, 450 million people live on $1 a day. They are right to look at the developed world's prosperity with envy and resentment.

And then there is oil, the commodity on which our lives and lifestyle most depend. Most oil resources are concentrated in areas of greatest unrest and volatility. Africa is likely to be the most important source of new oil. We have a vested interest in helping to create a secure and stable environment through the growth and spread of prosperity in this oil-rich region.

Put simply, if we want to protect our own prosperity we had better be part of the attack on poverty - poverty of resource, hope, and opportunity.

The commission's report is rich and detailed. It sets a target of 7 percent for sustained growth for Africa, to be achieved by 2010; it recognizes that it will be the private sector that drives growth; it argues that the investment climate must improve strongly and investment in infrastructure must be doubled; and it proposes specific measures to generate the changes required. All of this involves close partnership between business and government, with each taking its own responsibilities.

There has been lots of input, but the future of Africa depends on effective output. In the next few months it will be essential to agree and define the specific nature and extent of the business opportunities, the way in which business can best make effective partnerships with governments, and the support that business can provide to help implement those opportunities.

A clear and practical business plan for Africa should be available by the time of the G-8 summit in July. Without this, business involvement will be defused, fragmented, and ineffective. Members of the commission know this and must work with business to provide a framework for action.

The people of Africa look to the developed world with a mixture of admiration, hope, and resentment. They expect the developed world to honor its commitments in the Doha round and to follow through on the recommendations of the commission. As citizens, they will expect business to play its part and will judge us harshly if we do not build on the unique convergence of opportunities this year. The cynics must be banished to that wasteland where they know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Niall FitzGerald is the chairman of Reuters. This article first appeared in the Financial Times.

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