Opinionista Chipo Dendere 29 January 2018

Davos: A very icy African agenda

There is a lot of nuance and irony in a group of mostly men from the most resource-rich continent taking their begging bowls to a group of mostly rich men who know or care very little about Africa.

It’s like the board meeting every world leader with a strong economic agenda wants to be seen at, the who’s who of international finance, all competing for a chance at the main table. And African leadership this year made a strong show. At least nine heads of African states, including Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, attended the exclusive meeting for world business leaders at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

The summit attracts the world’s biggest financial leaders and business titans. This year’s impressive list of attendees includes more than 340 political leaders, CEOs from most major multinationals, civil society leaders and international organisations. Mnangagwa’s attendance has drawn a lot of global interest, probably as a result of the non-violent, headline-gripping coup in the southern African nation, deposing long-term president Robert Mugabe, who grew increasingly anti-west and was a strong critic of western institutions and isolated Zimbabwe from global engagement.

Zimbabwe has been a pariah state for nearly 20 years and so it is worth mentioning that for many Zimbabweans Mnangagwa’s presence (and his ability to stay awake) is a major milestone to be celebrated. African leaders tweeted about their excitement for the opportunity to sell their countries to this group of exclusive and influential business people. There is a lot of nuance and irony in a group of mostly men from the most resource-rich continent taking their begging bowls to a group of mostly rich men who know or care very little about Africa. This year’s meeting also takes place a few weeks after the United States President, Donald Trump, allegedly referred to African and Caribbean countries as shitholes.

Davos is a small, expensive and exclusive ski-resort town in the Swiss Alps. In January, the temperatures are incredibly low – about -1°C. Most of the who’s who use part of their time at Davos to hit the slopes and from what I hear this is where the real (snow) board meetings take place. It is quite unlikely that the majority of African delegates are keen to ski, or snow board, for many don’t have snow falls or skiing in their own moderate climate countries – especially when they could stay warm by the fire. Attendance at Davos is not cheap. While Africa is on the agenda and leaders along with ministers get free access, the rest of the delegates would have to pay a whopping €19,000 (est. $23,526.56) to attend the event. As a result most of the official African delegates who should be rubbing shoulders with the CEOs of multinationals seeking a piece of the African pie do not get to be part of the conversation.

Equal Partners?

The jewellery industry recorded $316-billion sales in 2016. The global revenue for cellphones was over $478-billion. The fertiliser industry’s revenue will reach $151-billion in 2020. China needs at least 600-million tonnes of food to feed its growing population but the world’s fastest growing economy is also quickly running out of arable land. The oil-rich Arab countries are facing increasing food challenges because of extreme weather events.

Africa on the other hand has nearly 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, roughly 60% of the global total. The minerals needed to produce jewellery and cellphones are found in abundance in African countries. Zimbabwe, for example, produces at least 7% of the world’s platinum supply. Platinum’s many uses include jewellery manufacturing and fertiliser production. Zimbabwe is also rich in diamonds and gold, to name a few minerals found in abundance there. In 2013, Zimbabwe produced 10.4-million carats, valued at $538.5-million, placing it in the top 10 of producing countries.

Since you are reading this online, you have the Democratic Republic of Congo to thank for your cellphone, tablet or laptop. The Democratic Republic of Congo has at least $24-trillion worth of untapped natural resources and the real figures could be double that. The global demand for cellphones has resulted in a global demand for cobalt, a mineral used in manufacturing phone batteries found in the DRC. To put it simply, without the DRC we would not have cobalt and without cobalt we would not have our fancy phones and Apple might not be worth a quarter of a trillion dollars ($750 billion).

In an ideal world the CEOs of the big global companies should be sweating profusely to get their business bids accepted by African leaders. Only under these conditions would it make sense to spend a week in those freezing conditions. African governments should be negotiating hard for shares in Apple and Steinmetz Diamond Group whose CEO has a net worth of over $5.8-billion and the majority of their diamonds come from African countries. In 2018, China-Africa trade rose to about $38.8-billion. Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba Group, made news after promising to invest millions in training young Africans. He also met with many African leaders. I hope that African leaders did not simply negotiate for more aid for youth programmes because African youth do not need more workshops on how to become entrepreneurs. Instead, African leaders should leverage increasing African consumerism for shares and other long-term investments in their countries. And yet, the body language of African leaders does not show that they are masters of the global economy and their countries hold the key to global economic survival.

Media coverage from Davos indicates that the majority of African countries, Zimbabwe included, have spent the majority of their time courting the World Bank and IMF, presumably seeking more aid, when we know that historically the deals offered by these institutions are rarely in the best interests of African countries.

We are not ready to divorce ourselves from institutions like the World Bank but Emmerson Mnangagwa’s new government should use their popularity, media coverage and momentum to advocate for debt cancellation. We can debate this but the truth is Zimbabwe should have never been economically adjusted. The World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (which are still going on – thank you very much) were a disaster and there is no reason why Zimbabwe should continue to suffer the yoke of debt. The World Bank needs Africa – Zimbabwe’s – business as it faces growing competition from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) informally known as the Chinese Bank

While good economic relationships of the Old Boys’ clubs might be formed on the ski slopes of European summits, it’s important to remember where so many cast their eyes for future opportunities. The future of the world and indeed the responsibility to pull up the world’s poorest lies in the hands of the men left behind to warm up by the fireplaces. DM

Chipo Dendere is a Zimbabwean political scientist. Dr Dendere is currently a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Scholar and a visiting assistant professor in political science at Amherst College. Her research is on democratisation and migration broadly, with a regional interest in African politics. She writes about the impact of voter exit, migration and remittances on the survival of authoritarian regimes. Her new research is on the role of technology and social media in new democracies.

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