The most welcome news on May 8 was the announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that Covid-19 is no longer a global emergency. While the stand-down siren has been sounded, we must remain vigilant and take precautions as there are still thousands of people around the world contracting milder forms of the virus; in some cases still resulting in serious issues for people who have underlying health conditions. Some facts from the WHO website suggest that (as of early May 2023), over the last three years, approximately 756 million Covid cases were recorded with approximately 7 million people who lost their lives.
Assuming the global population at about 8 billion, this translates to almost 9.5% of the population being infected and approximately 0.09% of the population having died. Comparing this with the Spanish Flu that started in February 1918 and lasted approximately two years, 500 million people or a third of the then global population were infected and about 50 million people died (3.3% of the global population). Though spread a century apart, these are events, particularly Covid-19, that have prepared us to deal with and overcome adversity together as a global community.
There were many lessons from this dark period in human history, the most significant of which was the importance of leadership at all levels. Some countries, with comparable economic, demographic, social and developmental status, managed better than their peers. A trait that was consistent with good leaders was effective, clear and periodic communications. There is no greater leadership failure in a crisis than delayed, ineffective and inconsistent communications. People understand problems as it’s a sad reality of the majority of human existence. Reinforcing problems and assigning blame only spreads uncertainty and creates panic which is synonymous with most politicians; what people want to know is that they are secure and that appropriate, quantifiable and urgent action is being taken to protect them.
What the last three years have further reinforced is that the world is not and will never be an equal place; the disparity between the developed and developing world will continue to grow, particularly if third world countries do not break the shackles of infinite bondage and over-reliance on the first world countries. No one has any interest in seeing Africa become self-sustainable except the people of Africa and the focus now should be on building sustainable ecosystems within geographic proximity. Never has the need for localization been more critical than now.
Never has there been a need for more African unity ever before, than now. Guided by a polarized world, African nations cannot get submerged in futile politics and the self-serving defence and economic policies of Western countries. Even if they plunder their combined resources through a false sense of ego and self-righteousness, the developed world will continue to have sustainable reserves for several generations. The African agenda needs to be focused on consolidating its position by rapidly strengthening and transforming intra-African relationships.
As the threat to life from the pandemic has reduced, people in general have begun to get back to a near normal way of life. Travel and tourism have bounced back with a vengeance and despite high costs, people are making up for the time lost from 2020-22. The war in Ukraine has continued with no immediate solution that has compelled a change in geopolitical alignments.
This event, in my opinion, is going to impact the future much more than even the pandemic or any other historic economic crisis. The trust deficit that exists between the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is at its highest. With a deep divide in the UN, no decision or change can ever be made if there is a conflict with any of the permanent members of the UNSC. Changes to the structure of the UN are being demanded by member nations but even as membership is being expanded in key functions of the UN, the final authority and ‘veto’ still rests with the five countries that not only have contradictory interest but also have a deep fissure in ideologies between the United States, the United Kingdom and France on one side and China and Russia on the other.
Sadly, this very aggressive demeanor resulting from the Ukraine conflict has witnessed the dramatic and wasteful increase in defence budgets of all countries around the world. Rather than spending money on green energy, ESG, housing, healthcare, education, and alleviating poverty, resources are senselessly being allocated to defence systems and extremely destructive munitions that will lead to the doom of our future. Paradoxically, the price of this perceived and notional security will be the very reason that people will continue to live in bondage and poverty.
The beneficiaries are just a few countries that are the usual suspects in much that is going wrong with the world. My question therefore remains–‘where does accountability lie in the free world’ where, shrouded in extreme conflicts of interest, the ‘judge, jury and the executioner’ are the same? The smallest issues in governance in the developing world are highlighted and severely dealt with through harsh measures but there seems to be no apprehension about the larger issues that are crippling the world.
These inconsistencies have alarmed and prompted reactions from the oil-rich Arab world. The unilateral imposition of sanctions and freezing the assets of nations by Western countries is creating an insecurity for the future. For perhaps the first time and a marked change from historic conformity, there is an apparent move by Saudi Arabia to sidestep Western-imposed sanctions and build harmony within the Middle East. Syria has been invited back into the Arab League after 12 years and Saudi Arabia has also started playing a pivotal role in settling the various conflicts between Syria, Iran and Yemen. It would appear that with the start of consular services between the Arab world and Iran, and with Iraq largely neutralized, things could gradually return to normal within the Persian Gulf. These developments are happening as China and Russia get closer in a strategic collaboration and China, with its large balance sheet, is starting to play a more active role in the Middle East. These realignments are expected to provide more security, both financial and strategic, to nations in Asia.
European countries have supported various countries in Africa through aid packages for various reasons including a sense of responsibility for historic injustices like colonization and slavery. The source of the aid, by country, can be traced according to the language spoken by the European countries i.e. English, German, Dutch, French or Portuguese. This aid has come at a high cost as a lot of tangible benefits for donors were traded in lieu of the aid. A lot of exploitation has taken place in extractive industries to include oil, gold, diamonds, precious stones, minerals etc. and agricultural products.
Very little value addition has happened on the continent and no effort has been made to create an enabling environment. Interestingly, the United States has so far had an erratic and inconsistent policy on Africa that has given the Chinese a headstart on establishing a strong foothold in Africa including but not limited to two permanent military bases that have been established in East Africa and West Africa. These developments, along with Russian and European interests, will polarize the countries in Africa and developing independent bilateral and multilateral intra-Africa partnerships may get adversely influenced. Remaining neutral and non-aligned is a key ingredient to self-determination, self-reliance and enhanced sovereignty; very few African countries have managed to keep this neutrality.
A factor that has remained congruous for financial security is the dominance of the US Dollar (USD) as a reserve currency. A lot of currencies have remained pegged to the USD. However, with the growing mistrust with US policies, the rise of the Chinese Yuan and a distinct move to create mechanisms for the bilateral settlement of payments between countries, it is likely that over the medium term the USD will lose its place as a reserve currency. The Afreximbank’s brainchild, the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS) to facilitate inter-convertibility amongst African currencies has yet to be finalized as it still faces several structural impediments although the Afreximbank is providing a $3 billion settlement cover as an overdraft facility. The greatest saving for Africans will be the $5 billion paid in transfer fees to international banks.
Less reliance on the USD will give rise to alternative means of storing wealth. While gold is the most likely reserve medium in the short-term, crypto and digital assets will most likely dominate the future of convertibility, transferability and storage in a decentralized and secure manner. While cryptocurrencies are a relatively new area, their mass adaptation will be the most transformative milestone in the history of financial services. Although there is growing adaptation in Nigeria (eNaira), Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, African countries are trailing in the crypto journey. Education and regulations along with cultural changes and building basic trust in this digital asset will play an indispensable role in the adaptation of this far-reaching and revolutionary change.
Despite the general negativity in current affairs and the economic volatility and correction caused by the failure of the Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, the general market trends have remained positive. Most countries in Europe and Asia have seen a turnaround post-pandemic. In some countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular the emirate of Dubai, the first quarter reports, across all sectors, have been exemplary.
The first indication was on the travel and tourism industry where things are getting back to 2019 levels. Despite the high costs of flights and hotels, the tourism sector has been thumping since October 2022. The property market is once again buoyant with prices having shot up and the construction frenzy is back to normal with developers working hard to keep up with demand. Coming from all over the world, enticed by excellent policies, safety, stability and long term visas, there is an exponential increase in the numbers of people making the UAE their residence.
African countries have started making their own recovery post the pandemic. Traveling through some of the countries, one gets the distinct feeling that governments are working to bring about the necessary change. The change in Kenya away from dynasty politics will be a great pilot to see whether the country thrives under a new leadership or will get sucked back into the maladies of power and abuse. There are smaller yet shining stars like Rwanda that continue to give hope and the smaller economies like Botswana that are showing tremendous promise.
We have an arduous journey ahead but we must plod along irrespective of the odds and remember the closing stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”