Why we are going to need Africa more than it needs us
It’s now 25 years since the Ethiopian famines of the 1980s and the West's unprecedented outpouring of generosity to their fellow human beings on another continent.
The question I'm always asked, of course, is: Was it all worth it? What's changed in Ethiopia and in Africa as a whole? A great deal, I answer — for both better and worse. Recently, I was back in Ethiopia, where these two types of change are quite apparent.
On the positive front, economic growth has boomed; indeed, next year Ethiopia is expected to be among the world’s top five fastest growing economies. Education enrolment has doubled, malaria death rates have halved and HIV/Aids is on the decline.
Mobile telephony is spreading (though it would be faster if privatised) and rural roads are linking communities to markets, health and education services.
Above all, while too many people are still reliant on food aid, famine will be avoided this year as it has been for the past 18 years, as distribution and early-warning systems have improved.
Certainly, the government could be more transparent, but this is a country making progress in a continent that has been doing likewise. Then there is the negative change of the climate. Many of the villagers I've met mark the mid-1980s as the time they saw how weather patterns were changing.
Since then, increasingly erratic rainfall has forced them to radically alter their farming practices.
Communities we visited in Tigray have had to rename the months of the year because the names were based on the seasons. They've now given up as the pattern of the seasons has changed so quickly. People told us how reduced rainfall has cut their income from farming. This, in turn, strains the social fabric. Thefts are becoming more common and children are forced out of the home to work. If allowed to spread and worsen to its logical conclusion, the kind of social disintegration we're now seeing in Ethiopia could have a chilling |trajectory.
It is all too easy for extreme poverty and climate change to feed a vicious cycle, making communities more vulnerable to extremist politics.
A band of extreme poverty and instability across the Sahel and Sahara — worsened by climate change — would be very bad for Europe to the north. And it is completely avoidable. The tension between the positive and negative changes in Ethiopia is palpable. Which direction wins depends on the choices Ethiopians make and to some extent upon us. And it's not all about us having to make sacrifices; there are opportunities, too. Whether or not you believe the scientific consensus about climate change, there's an inevitability to the way our own economies are adapting — and an economic rationale for us to buy into this change.
The inefficiencies of the hydrocarbon economy will be replaced by clean, cheap renewables; carbon finance trading will be a major industry in the near future. China is charging into renewables as Germany has already, with green jobs the fastest expanding new source of employment. Rather than deny these inexorable processes, we should embrace the opportunity they present if we are not to be left behind. Carbon finance and the market can help link solutions in the West to solutions in Africa. For example, growing trees to capture carbon could become a new cash crop for Africa's farmers if the right framework is agreed in Copenhagen. Investing in agriculture in Africa, both through government aid and private funds, is critical; it can also be highly profitable. Of all our undelivered development promises, the rich world's promises on agriculture are key.
Twenty-five years ago, the story was one of Africa starving. Now, in spite of ongoing food shortages in some regions, there is a new story. It is a story, backed by statistics, of an Africa rising.
The last continent to be developed, with a burgeoning middle class and 900 million producers and consumers, Africa is where some of the best returns on investment will be made in the next few decades. We must partner, as we have promised, with these people, for the sake of our global economy as well as our global environment, because in another 25 years we may need them more than they need us.
Bob Geldof is the co-founder of the Africa campaign group ONE ( www.one.org )