Africa Within a World in Transition

Posted by on Nov 6, 2013

Africa Within a World in Transition

The world is indeed in the throes of one of the most profound transitions in history. Not only do technological and economic changes have world-embracing effects, but also the prevailing socio-political dynamics has no historical precedence. This is not to say that in the past the world has not had periods of deep and game-changing transitions. For example the advent of industrialization in the 17th and 18th century culminated in the dawn of a new world order in which the West emerged as a dominant economic, military and colonial power. The ancient civilizations of India, Africa, China, Ottomans and Persians were subjugated for a few centuries to come. Yet in comparison with the contemporary transformative forces, the industrial revolution had limited reach and its impact was slow.


The many forces of contemporary transformation in human and social life may be broadly divided into two categories. One group tends to integrate socio-political, economic, and cultural life across regions and continents. Such integrative forces tend to narrow the gaps across communities and nations, build bridges within and across cultures, and create rising levels of social capital even in the midst of very diverse and segmented groupings.  The emergence of a global and fully integrated financial market is a case in point. Within the socio-political arena, the rise and growth of “borderless associations” such as ‘doctors without borders’, or ‘environmental activists without borders’ (Green Peace), and the like are all but part of the same dynamics.


The other category of forces is inherently disintegrative. Whether in socio-political arena, or within the religious, cultural or economic sphere, such forces are inherently disruptive and conducive to the spread of mistrust within human communities. More often than not, such forces are driven by historic and failed ideologies of narrow self-protection and deep-rooted fear of “otherness”- I call this “otherphobia”.


At present, the integrative and disintegrative forces are at play in every land simultaneously. Interestingly, modern communication technologies and social media platforms have facilitated the spread of both these forces and processes. Access to the worldwide web in real time across the globe, the international availability of technology nearly in all sectors, and the rising awareness of what is possible, viable and desirable, have helped create a variety of new communities- mostly virtual. Such virtual and deeply connected communities are a real threat to the establishments across the world. Globally, financial, economic, cultural, religious, social and political establishments are vulnerable to attacks by these virtual communities.


Fairness and transparency, accountability and value-consistency appear to be the watchwords of the majority of these emerging virtual movements worldwide.  Increasingly, to them the national boundaries and the conventional sovereignty considerations are of little importance.


In this milieu, Africa is facing a multi-layered challenge. The continent’s economic growth has taken roots for the first time, and all indications are that industrial diversification could lead to sustainable growth. Yet on many other fronts the continent is struggling to establish institutions that are the effective conduits for channeling growth into social development and human welfare. Far too often, the post-colonial political establishments clash with the emerging social quest for accountability and transparency. A few exceptions aside, political institutions on the continent are largely extractive by nature. This means political leaders regard the machinery of the state as a means of self-enrichment and control. This, of course, they do in the name of sovereignty and political leadership. Legal and judicial institutions are equally and far too commonly bureaucratic, slow, and at time politically compromised. Economic and financial establishments are likewise typically dismissive of social and environmental care. Often times they ignore the critical importance of ‘social licence to operate’ within the community. A case in point is the conduct of the mining companies and the environmental legacies they leave behind for the neighbouring communities.


The sum total of these practices do not sit well with the majority of population on the continent. Africa has a young population and the demographics are projected to stay so for another three to four decades. The younger generations are typically more globally connected, networked and alert to the malpractices within their societies. Whether they network with the integrative or disintegrative movements, they nonetheless challenge the practices they regard as unfair, abusive, extractive, or secretive. This is part of Africa’s socio-economic and political integration into the global society. It is therefore incumbent upon political, social, religious and business leadership in Africa today to take seriously the growing transitional issues facing the continent. Neither suppression nor denial of these realities are conducive to sustainable social progress and prosperity.