President and Co-founder of FINCA International Rupert Scofield says the West must make improving economic activity in Africa a priority to avoid humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale
OVER THE NEXT 30 years, Africa’s population is expected to double. That means that by 2050, almost a quarter of all the world’s young population will live on the continent. This represents a huge opportunity for economic development, but it also carries the risk of a catastrophe on a massive scale.
In September, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) released one of the largest studies of its kind into violent extremism in Africa. Hundreds of young members of extremist groups told researchers that though poverty and marginalisation played a part in their decision to turn to groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, it was the actions of African governments – specifically, government action aimed at countering terrorism – which was the ‘tipping point’. Is it any wonder that Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has spoken about the ‘keg of gunpowder’ that youth unemployment represents?
It might seem paradoxical that the collective action to counter extremism appears, according to the report mentioned above, ‘to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa.’ But it’s important to note that this action is often heavy-handed and reactive; often it has drawn the criticism of human rights groups and security experts. Attempts by African governments to prevent extremism by focusing on the causes of that extremism are relatively uncommon.
The unemployment that has led in part to extremism has also prompted a massive wave of migration to the countries of the West which, needless to say, carries its own grave risks. Clearly, in this swirling vortex of misery, marginalisation, perceived government violence and rising terrorism, the prospects for Africa’s youth population look bleak. In that context, the promise of an automatic weapon and a few hundred dollars a month from the Islamic State or al-Qaeda offshoots in the Sahel, or Boko Haram in the west, or al-Shabaab in the east, may, in the near term, appear attractive.
Prevention is better and less expensive than cure. It may be too late for many of the radicalised and those who have fled the continent, but for others, there is the hope that better economic opportunities could lead them out of poverty and the cold embrace of extremism. Africa’s population dynamic is changing, and there is a general frustration and anger that on this resource-rich continent, there are few attractive economic prospects. These young people need to be made a better ‘value proposition’ than extremism offers. A good start would be to support those of limited means in their efforts to start and grow a business and bring about job creation in African economies. Looking at it family-by-family, the impact may appear marginal or insignificant. But it adds up.
Still, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that this effort will be simple. Much damage has already been done. Conflict plagues much of Africa and this conflict prevents finance and aid from reaching areas in which it, ironically, is needed most. This means even less of the support and capital needed to create jobs. More importantly, it destroys rural communities’ most important asset: its social capital. When John Hatch and I built the village banking model in the 1970s, its core principle was based on the strong social capital we found in rural communities in the developing world. It was this intra-community and cultural bond that gave strength to village banking and the microfinance movement. It is this social capital that conflict destroys. Similarly, mass migration and the ‘brain drain’ of Africa’s youngest and brightest minds damages the ‘engine room’ needed to drive the African economy.
Microfinance has a long history of alleviating and helping to alleviate poverty in developing nations and bringing about economic independence in local populations. In Nigeria, Uganda and the Congo among many others, microfinance has rebuilt infrastructure, developed important sectors and empowered women. The movement has laid the foundations, but serious investment – both in time and resources – is needed from governments to build on the work we started. The UNDP found that most terror recruits express frustration at their economic conditions, with employment the most acute need at the time of joining a group. Efforts must be focused at solving this unemployment issue and plugging the economic gap.
Too often, the nations of Africa are used as chess pieces in elaborate games of regional soft power. Better collaboration between the major nations of the world might go some way to introducing the structure necessary to take advantage of the enormous tracts of arable land as yet unused throughout the continent. At the UNGA in September, the President of the 72nd session, Miroslav Lajčák, identified ‘making a difference in the lives of ordinary people’ as a key principle of the assembly. If we in the West fail to make the improvement of economic activity in Africa a priority, we are likely to see the development of a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale.