Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Private sector can help Africa to take responsibility for its development

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The decision of African business leaders to join the fight against Ebola brings new assets and capabilities to the task. But it also underscores the limits of the traditional development model, whereby African governments have outsourced their sovereign duty to protect their citizens to international organisations.


The growing complexity of Africa’s challenges can hardly be addressed through reliance on the heroic expeditions of foreign volunteers. The outbreak shows that the response demands a level of coordination that can be effectively performed only where there are competent domestic institutions.

This is not to say that international volunteers are not needed. It simply means that their contributions will be more effective where there is local capacity to undertake sovereign duties such as providing security, protecting borders, ensuring food security and safeguarding human health.

Since independence, African countries have outsourced these functions to international organisations. As argued by Amy Sharples in her authoritative book, The Birth of Development, international organisations were created to make the best use of external assistance to improve the welfare of the poor. But their good intentions may have lulled African countries into abdicating some of their key sovereign duties.

The first failure of the outsourcing model was in agriculture. For decades, African countries relied on food aid to respond to famines. Africa is now focusing on feeding itself and using agriculture as a driver for economic development. The turning point was the adoption, in 2003, of the comprehensive Africa agricultural development programme.

The limits of the outsourcing model are evident in the case of Ebola. The admittedly inept handling of the Ebola crisis by the World Health Organisation was a clear sign that international agencies could not provide a substitute for African action. Further, the UN said it did not have the funds to respond to the crisis.

In response, the African Union (AU) called upon African businesses, which have so far committed $37.4m (£23.9m) to equip, train and deploy 2,000 health workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The participation of the private sector has a number of novel features. First, Africa is taking a long-term view of the crisis, including post-outbreak reconstruction. In a statement reflecting this outlook, the AU said: “While the global response to the crisis has increased in recent weeks, there is still a critical need for additional competencies to care for the infected, strengthen local health systems and prevent the disease from spreading.”

Second, the private sector insists on working through the AU as the continent’s main political body created by governments. This provides the basis for coordinated approaches, which are missing from chaotic international voluntary activities.

Third, private-sector contributions have been accompanied by critical assessments of the political, managerial and analytical capabilities needed to respond effectively to the crisis.

Fourth, one of the most important observations from the roundtable was the importance of mobilising health workers through AU member states, some of which have had prior experience in dealing with Ebola and other infectious diseases, such as polio. This not only helps to strengthen state capacity but also allows the continent to identify gaps in states’ ability to respond.

Such an approach is likely to lead to long-term institution-building. This is in contrast with the short-term emergency approaches that often undermine local institutions and are hardly sustained after the crisis is over.

Business leaders are not just donating money. They are also bringing to the task the operational capabilities they utilise in their own daily business activities. It is the focus on competence and accountability that African public institutions often lack.

Fifth, the private sector also showed considerable interest in harnessing scientific and technical knowledge in academic and research institutions. One of the pledges made at the November meeting was to support the creation of an infectious research centre. This pledge provides opportunities to engage African scientists and researchers in addressing Africa’s health challenges.

Finally, the private sector has extensive infrastructure and logistical capabilities, which will be harnessed to support the fight against Ebola. This ranges from planes to transport and health workers to mobile telephone platforms for making the best use of individual donations as well as disseminating health information.

The self-interest of African businesses cannot be ignored. The Ebola outbreak has occurred at a time of great economic promise for Africa. The continent has been growing at a faster rate than the world average, and has emerged as a significant destination for foreign direct investment.

Businesses are concerned about the safety of their workers. Their interests are therefore aligned with the responsibility of states to protect the health of their citizens.

The Ebola outbreak is a catastrophe for the affected countries. But it is inspiring novel interactions between government, industry and academia to find solutions to the continent’s challenges. It is causing a rebirth of African development that will entail bringing considerable creativity and innovation to the building of robust healthcare systems.

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