‘Sub-optimal’ partnerships continue to impede progress

Partnerships are inherent to the human condition, but action is urgently needed to improve the quality of the ‘sub-optimal’ partnerships that Africa continues to develop within the continent and with the outside world, according to Célestin Monga, chief economist and vice-president for economic governance and knowledge management at the African Development Bank in Côte d’Ivoire.

Delivering a keynote address at the launch of the Alliance for African Partnership held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania from 18-20 July, he said Africans needed to address a series of ‘deficits’ in order to successfully build political, economic and social partnerships that would allow the continent to cooperate and survive for the next million years.

He said Africans needed to take themselves seriously before they themselves could be taken seriously in any partnership.

Monga said he found Africans’ lack of desire for knowledge and learning often on display as he travelled and met Africans across the world in board rooms, communities and on the streets.

Lack of curiosity

“I see a real lack of curiosity about what really counts, what’s going on in the world and what moves society,” he said, adding he wasn’t sure Africans devoted enough time and energy to trying to observe and learn from other countries’ experiences.

“There has not been a problem that has happened in Africa that has not happened elsewhere in the world and been resolved. This is not to say we should copy everything, but really there is no need to reinvent the world,” said Monga.

Monga blamed Africa for a leadership deficit.

“Nothing happens without great leadership, but leadership is difficult. It’s not something you can go to a shop and buy.” He said truly great leadership made day-to-day leadership irrelevant as it constructed systems within institutions that can self-correct and maintain democracy.

He said the way disagreements and conflicts were handled or communicated on the continent jeopardised many partnerships. Any single, tiny conflict becomes a source of terror, he said, adding that failure to manage and contain conflicts will not get institutions anywhere.

“We do quite poorly on this in Africa. [We should improve] without destroying the foundations we are trying to build,” he said.

Successful species

Monga said a frequent question is why some organisations, universities, institutions, NGOs and companies thrive while others fail and disappear?

He said US sociobiologist Edward Wilson had done interesting cutting-edge work on this phenomenon and found that four types of species have prevailed in the history of the earth: ants, bees, termites and human beings.

“The question is what do we have in common? How did we manage to survive thousands and thousands of years while others have disappeared?” Monga asked.

According to Wilson, what we have in common with these groups is the fact that we cooperate, we establish partnerships that work.

“It’s the ability of being great cooperators that makes species, societies and groups or institutions survive,” said Monga.

Optimal partnerships

“Since we are talking about the partnerships from the African perspective, we should ask ourselves if they have been optimal, if we have managed to establish, design and run the kind of beneficial partnerships that would allow Africans to be around for the next several thousand years.”

Africa, like every other region of the world, has always managed through its people to establish partnerships, but my view is, the kind of partnerships that Africa has been involved in in the past four or five centuries have always been sub-optimal, and something needs to be done to improve the quality of partnerships Africa develops within itself and with the outside world, he said.

According to Monga, Africa was involved in partnerships well before its encounter with the Europeans and the triangular trade, but whether these have been useful is debatable.

“This is why Africa, despite its resilience, which cannot be underestimated, has not done as well as it should. Africa needs to take seriously the kind of partnerships the continent establishes today.

“We need to address and reflect candidly on illegitimate partnerships that we maintain. On the political front we all know – and it’s widely acknowledged – that Africans’ voice on the global scene is not properly heard,” he said.

Citing the memoirs of Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali, the first African to lead the United Nations as secretary general from 1992-96, Monga said that one of the reasons that Ghali lost the second term at the helm of the international body is that he tried to change Africa’s political partnerships with the rest of the world, and that was not accepted.

‘Improved partnerships benefit all parties’

“It’s unfortunate because I’m not one of those who believe that changing African partnerships, even on the political front, means being against anybody. I’m one of those naïve people who actually think that improving partnerships always benefits all parties, and that it’s never a zero-sum game. There is nobody who wins everything and another who loses everything, but the fear that changing the status quo will lead to disaster or to the so-called powerful groups losing power is really not justified,” he said.

“The economic partnerships that Africa has been engaging appear to be the confrontation of us versus them,” he said. “I don’t believe that economics at the international level is a global competition. Countries don’t compete against each other. It’s just a misleading thought. Countries compete against themselves to improve their productivity … Economic partnerships which have, as a true purpose, to improve the benefits for the parties involved, help everybody, he added.

Monga said he was aware that most African countries still have economic structures around exporting commodities or goods which have not been transformed. Despite efforts, there are some outside forces, market forces and political forces that limit the efforts being made.

For instance, large subsidies granted to United States farmers by their government have a negative impact on the international prices of these commodities and on the welfare of the people of the developing countries, especially in Africa. African farmers make a lot of effort under extraordinarily challenging circumstances without state support or financing to improve their production, but when international prices collapse because of subsidies somewhere in Europe or in the US, that perverts the whole conversation on partnerships, he said.

Dealing with fundamentals

“When you meet and say you want to discuss economic partnerships with Africa and you don’t discuss some of these fundamentals, you kind of invalidate, without even realising it, the whole conversation you want to start,” he said.

All topics will need to reflect on the new meanings for partnerships, he suggested.

This includes the fact that Africa is a participant in the global economic value chain, according to African Development Bank study, but upon deeper digging, it is revealed that Africa is consistently at the lower end of the value chain, selling unprocessed commodities processed by others.

Monga said civil society organisations were crucial in developing and sustaining any economic and political development and access to the public sphere, but such organisations needed to adhere to high standards of ethics and legitimacy.

“We should build strong and credible states, but too often in Africa we complain about the ineffectiveness of the government, which results in people going back to mobilise with the civil society,” he said.

“It is impossible to build real effective partnerships without talking about these things,” he said.