John A. Simon, the U.S. ambassador to the African Union, has seen the satellite photos of Africa at night, when the darkness that covers most of the continent underscores the challenges to preparing the region for its potential as a global market.
Yet, he is optimistic that with foreign investment and stable governments, Africa can prosper.
“Connecting to the global economy is fundamental to Africa’s future,” he told the U.S.-Africa Infrastructure Conference in Washington, calling for investment “in entrepreneurship from all sources, the development of larger markets along regional lines and the retention of its most gifted people.”
Mr. Simon noted that Africa’s economy has averaged a 5 percent annual growth rate over the past decade and that foreign investment is booming.
“Foreign investment has grown from $7 billion in 2002 to $53 billion last year, a more than sevenfold increase,” he said.
Mr. Simon warned that Africa must achieve peace and stability in conflict zones, provide energy, build roads and develop a professional class of workers to continue on its path to success.
“We have all seen the pictures of Africa from space at night. The only lights being visible are those in South Africa and a few that are scattered along the coasts,” he said.
Mr. Simon, ambassador to the AU since July, called on the 53-nation coalition to do more to achieve the goal set out on its Web site (africa-union.org): “Africa must unite.”
“From my perspective the African Union can, and indeed must, be a critical element in bridging these gaps if Africa is to recognize the potential it has by 2020,” he said.
“In many ways, the next few years will be extraordinarily decisive.”
Mr. Simon added that Africa is more stable today than it was only a decade ago.
“Relative to 10 years ago, when more than a dozen conflicts raged across the continent, there are now basically three or four,” he said.
Those include hostilities in Sudan, Somalia and the Nigerian Delta area, as well as long-standing border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“If Africa is to move forward in the next few years,” Mr. Simon said, “the international community needs to do more. Ultimately, it is the absence of conflict that is necessary for there to be the type of economic growth that Africa needs to realize if it is to achieve the very ambitious goals that it has for the development of its people.”