Although the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa is among the lowest in the world, the economic impact of the virus is being felt across Africa as world trade falters and mobility restrictions continue. In this context, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivered a keynote speech at the Bruegel Annual Meeting on the subject of ‘Africa after COVID-19: Can the economy recover?’
The meeting, hosted by the specialist economic think tank, examined ‘A New World Economy Post COVID-19,’ in three days of discussions covering the most urgent economic questions facing Europe and the world. Madam Sirleaf’s speech opened by highlighting recent pre-COVID-19 perceptions of Africa as a place of significant growth potential and expanding democratic governance:
“Decades of political and economic transformations moved Africa from the perception of a “big man” autocracy to improving conditions of participatory democracy resulting in changes in long-held perceptions. Defined by the demographic dividends of a young and technologically-savvy population, Africa was regarded as the ‘young continent’ of the future.”
However, beyond the humanitarian costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impacts are already wide-ranging, and there are increasing threats to the progress made by African countries in recent years. Madam Sirleaf commented that for the next two to three years, the economic prospects for the continent are dire as global complexity and uncertainty increases:
“From oil production to manufacturing and retail distribution, previously thriving industries and businesses are withering under the effects of COVID-19. Giant economies are falling into recession as fragile states, especially those still trying to recover from the economic and social fallouts of Ebola, face even deeper challenges and adversities.”
Madam Sirleaf went on to discuss how the responsibility for mitigating against the impacts of COVID-19 must lie with Africa’s leaders. The first priority is for the correct economic stimuli to be deployed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Additionally, they must facilitate public-private partnerships to spur innovation and entrepreneurship that will result in job creation. However, Madam Sirleaf notes that Africa will not be able to recover its fortunes alone, and will require support from the world’s economic institutions:
“I join in the call for access to additional concessional financing through easing of restrictions on Special Drawing Rights. This will be critical to reducing Africa’s future debt burden and nullifying the need for infusion of fresh capital.”
Looking to the future, Madam Sirleaf commented on the potential for the African continent to play a crucial role in fulfilling Europe’s own aims for growth and development. Europe continues to rely on Africa for the supply of raw materials and cost-effective manufacturing, and Africa could help mitigate Europe’s aging population with it’s young and increasingly technologically-savvy workforce.
Before closing her speech, Madam Sirleaf spoke about her hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic is recognized for being more than a crisis, and instead, an opportunity to develop a new, fairer world order based on more humanitarian principles—and that Africa remains the rising continent of the future:
“Ultimately, COVID-19 may best be seen not in the paralyzing effects on the global economy and that of Africa, but how the world responds to the call for a New World Order that strengthens the pillars of democratic governance, provides opportunities for women and youth, and makes trade fairer. It will come to be determined in how we govern more justly, equitable and inclusively.
In the end, as the scourge is global, it will come to be defined by how committed we became to strengthening the bonds of our humanity.”
You can watch the full speech here.