Riders for Health’s executive director, Barry Coleman, blogs from the World Economic Forum for Africa which is taking place in Addis Ababa from 9-11 May 2012.
Apparently you count growth in cranes. Not the birds, which might be as useful, but the steel giants that command the skies above new buildings. London has cranes, New York has cranes and so does Addis Ababa. I counted six through the smoggy, rainy haze only this morning.
Crane-counting used to be somewhat unreliable. It seems that we are better at assessing growth these days. Not because we have abandoned cranes, but because we count them more carefully. I am not making this up.
I don’t know if six cranes is good or bad or whether my counting techniques are still of the old-school. Perhaps the World Economic Forum will know. Perhaps the thousand or so experts and politicians who are here for the World Economic Forum for Africa will have figured it out by the end of the week. They should, because this year’s conference is all about growth.
Africa is growing slightly faster than the rest of the world, except China, of course, which even in a slow-down always blows the rest of the world away. The bankers and mineral extractors are cock-a-hoop. They told us so. They told us that only private enterprise, and unimaginable tons of it, could change the continent. Which is what the WEF wants.
Of course all the growth is through enterprise. There is no other possible mechanism. Julius Nyerere’s African Socialism died before he did, leaving nothing in its place but a small-scale scrabble for minor advantages. Call it enterprise, if it helps. Political revolution didn’t. It has generally been ham-fisted and often if not usually pointlessly bloody. Even the more recent examples, such as Zimbabwe’s and South Africa’s, relatively humane as these things go, haven’t as yet turned out terribly well.
So here in Addis, once again, the politicians and the business behemoths meet. The figures if not the cranes over this city tell them that at last — and all because of them — everything is working out.
Actually the cranes over Luanda, in Angola, are really impressive. Below them the oil boys (and the odd girl) are at work, along with the financiers, the construction companies, the insurers, the other mineral extractors and, of course, not far away, the soldiers.
There’s a pretty good crane-count in Abuja, I notice, and Cape Town. Harare, however, is relatively crane-free. That’ll teach them. No cranes for them. Not for now. The excellent Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s minister of finance is here, thank goodness, and maybe the first cranes of a Zimbabwe Spring will soon be seen. Go, Biti!
We will one day have to see and think past growth as the only indicator of how well things are going. Recently someone in all seriousness tried another one — happiness. That might be a trifle optimistic but we could at least look seriously, for example, at the progress of the poor.
Five kilometres out of Addis, poverty has the usual medieval look, and ten kilometres out of Luanda no doubt it is just the same. This needs an indicator. It needs another revolution. It needs bloodless revolutionaries. People who see it all quite differently.
Some of them are here. Some of the social entrepreneurs who would like to use enterprise as a technique for large-scale change are here. Along with some who have actually managed to do it.
In a rain-swept car-park, wondering if the ‘social’ bit of enterprise could ever be more than a pimple on the backside of the truly overwhelming might of the corporate storm divisions, I met Sheela Patel.
Sheela turned me round and led me back to the front line — this week in an Addis hotel, just as in some weeks it is in Eastern Zambia or highland Lesotho — and there, manning the barricades, were our very own Andrea, of course, Nick Moon of Kickstart, Gisele Yitamben who transforms the lives of women in Cameroon, Cosmas Okoli, who fights for mobility for the disabled poor in Nigeria, and a ferocious-looking crowd of the usual suspects.
Where Sheela leads, one follows. Her organisation, Slum-dwellers International, not merely reaches but fights for and empowers (correctly used, this time) millions of the very poorest people on the planet. Look it up www.sdinet.org and see.
But don’t try counting it in cranes.