The World Bank's new report on Africa, published this week, concluded that that continent "could be on the brink of an economic take-off, much like China was 30 years ago, and India 20 years ago".
In its draft strategy for Africa, published on Monday, the bank said the continent's steady economic growth, progress on the millennium development goals and good rates of returns on investments give Africa "unprecedented opportunity for transformation and growth". Promoting Africa as an exciting and lucrative investment destination will be crucial to fulfilling this potential, it added.
"The emergence of new development partners such as China, the untapped potential of mobilising domestic resources, as well as the rise in private capital flows to Africa, calls for a new approach – Africa as an investment proposition – and points to the need for new partnerships among governments, development partners and the private sector," said the bank.
Based on data from the World Development Indicators, private cash flows (remittances and foreign direct investment) to developing countries totalled more than $650bn in 2009, while official development assistance fell to less than $130bn.
As the strategy's name – Africa's future and the World Bank's role in it – might suggest, the draft, which comes five years after its last Africa Action Plan, is both an optimistic reading of Africa's development and an assertive defence of the critical role the bank can play in its future. According to some, the emergence of new and very eager investors like China and India has left the bank worried about losing its footing on the continent.
Writing in the Nairobi-based Business Daily, Johnstone Ole Turana argued that: "The increased accessibility of grants from the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] nations, which is being provided with less conditionality compared to the World Bank and the western countries' bilateral aid, has forced sub-Saharan African nations to re-orient their engagement from the west to the east."
The draft moves away from a focus on single-issue projects – in an implicit critique of an MDG model of development with separate targets – and instead focuses on systems and structures, giving special attention to closing Africa's "infrastructure gap" and leveraging its investment potential. This means developing a more "attractive" climate for foreign investors, tackling "key constraints" from the regulation of labour and land to the lack of "financial (and overall business) literacy".
The bank is, of course, positioning itself as the essential partner for both developing countries and potential investors, willing and ready to exercise its "comparative advantage" in partnerships, knowledge, and financing. "From the reputational perspective, it's absolutely crucial for them to be seen as linchpins to African development, particularly with regard to private sector linkages" , said Soren Ambrose, from Action Aid Kenya, last month.
Yesterday, the bank's managing director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, approached the China Mining Congress, being held in Tianjin, China, with a bid for how "the World Bank can help lay the ground work for larger investments", offering knowledge and guidance to investors and advice to governments on how to marry investment and development priorities. Okonjo-Iweala also advertised the bank's programme of providing "political risk" insurance to investors in case of war, civil unrest or expropriation.
The draft also sets out the bank's commitment to improve the otherwise poor perceptions of Africa, which can make attracting investors challenging. The paper claims the rate of return on foreign investment in Africa is higher than in any other developing region, but notes that "given its legacy of poverty, slow growth, conflict and disease, not everybody sees Africa as the emerging frontier".
The bank's wants to help change the public mindset, "not just in providing the evidence of the changes on the continent and educating the rest of the world, but also in supporting those, such as the media, who interpret this evidence to the public and thereby shorten the lag between perceptions and reality".
The bank also plans a shift in its own communications with the public, moving away from the stand-alone reports aimed at specialist audiences.
One early example of this shift is the bank's decision to make public a series of stakeholder consultations on the draft strategy, held in 36 countries between June and September this year, and uploading a promotional video on YouTube.
What feedback the bank chooses to incorporate into its strategies and programmes on the continent – if any – is the crucial question. In the past, critics, such as Beatrice Edwards, of the Governance Accountability Project, have come down hard on the bank for showing "transparency about the problem but no accountability or attempt to fix it".
But the online consultation does provide an opportunity to tell the bank what you think – and posting a comment isn't too arduous, at least from the UK. Feel free to cross-post your comments here.