South Africa

World Economic Forum – Africa: A gathering of the powerful, the good and the just plain expedient

By J Brooks Spector 8 May 2013

On Wednesday evening, the annual World Economic Forum – Africa (WEF-A) meeting kicks off in Cape Town. About a thousand government officials from across Africa, as well as senior officials from the United States and other Western nations, are being joined by hundreds of business leaders from Africa. Inevitably, too, there will be a host of representatives from major international corporations, the inevitable collection of representatives from international development agencies and advocacy NGOs, and a horde of journalists in attendance as well. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The two-day conference is one of the regional spinoffs of the annual WEF Davos conference, an event that takes place every year in late January. Davos is one of Switzerland’s trendier ski spots; but, during the WEF conference, the place is overrun by people with everything else on their minds besides the quality of the powder snow on the ski slopes. That yearly event is one of the premier global gatherings for thoughtful discussions that give its attendees (and one can’t just rock up to it) a chance to mingle with other powerful folks to think great thoughts and ask worthy “what if” questions. Those are the kinds of conversations that allow participants to contemplate making the world safer for good business, and doing global good through safer business. This event is not a simple public service by the meeting’s organisers, however. Unless you are invited, you have to pay a hefty attendance fee or make your company a sponsor of the WEF – and pay an even heftier fee. No free lunches here – unless one goes to the lunch-time press conferences being proffered by any number of organisations eager for publicity.

Like its parent, the WEF-A also meets annually now, with the meetings arranged alternately between a Cape Town year and a place that is just a bit more like the world’s more usual image of Africa. Last year it was in Addis Ababa and next year it will be in Lagos. At a pre-event media conference, when organisers were asked why, if global business is the connecting tissue of such a meeting, they didn’t just use South Africa’s business and finance capital – Johannesburg – for the meeting, rather than Cape Town. The answer was that Johannesburg has too many distractions, by comparison to the less exciting Cape Town and its environs. Oh. That certainly explains the choice of Cape Town, as opposed to the metropolitan region that accounts for around 15% of all of Africa’s GDP. Why didn’t we think of that?

When that explanation had been offered, one cynic whispered sotto voce that perhaps Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF and all its regional gatherings, has a favourite vineyard in the Cape – or maybe he’s even looking for one to purchase so he can retire to it and run things from there. Schwab is the canny industrialist/philanthropist who initiated the whole WEF thing, setting up and perfecting the model of getting really big companies to become sponsors of these annual meetings; and then creating the organisation that has made these meetings “you had to be there” events for people who already are – or wish to be – at the centre of things on the world stage.

Anyway, this year, the theme for the Cape Town meeting is: “Delivering on Africa’s Promise”. Sessions include building a resilient continent; mapping the African infrastructure landscape; myth busting: investing in Africa; entrepreneurship unlocked; building with Brics; the oceans: a new resource frontier for Africa; connected Africa: can we get there faster; building Africa’s financial sector; and many more. The slate of activities is a real wonk heaven – and a very fertile field for international financial services houses and banks, infrastructure manufacturers and sellers – and, inevitably, too, the audit firms that end up being employed to monitor all the money sloshing around when the big stuff gets bought or sold.

Curiously, while there are sessions on arts and culture and higher education, there is little or no time in the formal schedule for basic, primary, high school or technical education – despite the fact most development economics experts agree that these are some of the key requirements for economic take-off. And it is also where the historical analogies from the high growth economies of East and North Asia have all pointed to major investments in those sectors as the ones that really paid off in the growth race.

The buzz for this year’s event, and even its main theme, reflects the new trope that the Africa is “the hopeful continent”, that Africa is rising, and that it is a continent of young, aspirant middle-class consumers, eager to join the world of the future. Left unsaid, perhaps because it is too unsettling to be discussed aloud, is whether in a political sense Africa is approaching its version of the Arab Spring as economic growth stubbornly refuses to catch up to the dreams of that young, hopeful aspirant middle-class cohort of hundreds of millions of Africans. And what will need to happen to ensure things don’t go awry as they now seem to have in much of the Middle East after that seemingly felicitous start two years ago similarly is not part of the formal agenda – although it will certainly be a topic of conversation in the more informal sessions over a single malt scotch or two.

Still, organisers are hopeful that the WEF-A is – or can be – more than just another pleasant talk shop poised between Table Mountain and the ocean. As Elsie Kanza, head of the WEF’s Africa programme, says, “Africa has an historic opportunity to take advantage of recent improvements in governance, as well as its massive youth bulge to transform its economy and society. The World Economic Forum on Africa presents Africa’s leaders with a platform to build on these encouraging signs and work together to create innovative models, solutions and outcomes to tackle the region’s challenges and harness the great potential” of the continent.

Of course, a key element of this year’s event will be the release of the African Competitiveness Survey report. While the report is likely to highlight some major improvements over the past decade, the report is also almost certain to put a spotlight on the challenges to making the continent competitive with other growing regions such as major parts of Latin America, South Asia and much of Southeast and East Asia. Not surprisingly, too, there are numerous side events calling attention to the capabilities of international financial services companies in a kind of “Pick me! Pick me!” feeding frenzy; with such companies eager to catch the eyes and attention of a dozen African presidents and their advisors so they can cosy up to be part of the great infrastructure buying and building machine gearing up for Africa. DM


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