The following summary was prepared by SDG Lab intern Davide Fanciulli based on his virtual participation in the event.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a large toll on economic activity in sub-Saharan Africa, threatening to erode the continent’s hard-won gains in reducing poverty, which will be critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The road to recovery requires countries to create fiscal space, grow the digital economy, and speed up job creation.Those were some of the main messages coming out of “Africa’s Pulse: charting the road to recovery”, a virtual briefing for Geneva-based Country Missions co-convened by the World Bank Group Geneva Office and the SDG Lab on February 3, 2021.
The briefing focused on Africa’s economic outlook and outlined concrete policy recommendations and good practices to foster a resilient recovery across the continent.
Dr Albert Zeufack, World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, opened the discussion with a presentation on key findings and messages emerging from the Africa’s Pulse report as summarized below:
- First, despite what has been up until now a relatively modest impact on the health side, COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on the African economy, erasing almost an entire decade of progress and leading the region into its first recession in 25 years;
- Second, the road to recovery will be long and steep, as the pandemic is not only creating new challenges for African countries, but is exacerbating preexisting ones, such as rising debt, deteriorating governance, and declining investments; and
- Third, to overcome these parallel crises, sound and transparent economic policies that deliver jobs and an economic transformation based on inclusive productivity growth will be paramount. These policies will have to rely mainly on restoring national fiscal space and on digitalization and connectivity.
Contributing on these last two aspects, Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau and SDG Lab Advisory Group member, highlighted the unique potential of digital technologies in the fight against COVID-19, not only in Africa but globally. Despite the issue of connectivity rising to the top of the global agenda, Ms. Bogdan-Martin underscored that unequal access remains the largest hurdle to making a dent in development goals.
Some 3.7 billion people are currently not connected to the internet, with 960 million of them located in Africa; on average, only 29% of Africans have access to the internet. As Ms. Bogdan-Martin indicated, this digital divide cannot be tackled by governments alone and must be the result of effective partnerships, youth engagement, innovation, good leadership, financing, and inclusion. Collaboration through projects is key, such as the Niger 2.0 or the Giga initiatives—the former is an activity incubated by the SDG Lab through the Geneva ecosystem.
On the path towards a digital transformation and recovery, Ms. Cina Lawson, Minister of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation of the Republic of Togo, presented the country’s approach and experience, noting that Togo saw in just five years a significant increase in internet coverage, rising from 13% in 2015 to 52% in 2020.
Ms. Lawson further emphasized how, in a context where everything is intertwined, digital technologies represent crucial tools to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Digital technologies have facilitated payment of taxes, enabled cash transfers to the most vulnerable households, supported digital entrepreneurship, and the expansion of financial services such as mobile money and banking.
Throughout the concluding section of the virtual event, the participants collectively identified the most effective drivers for sub-Saharan Africa to harness digital technologies, namely: new investments in infrastructure; enhanced leadership, transparency and governance; and strengthened policy regulations and legislation.
Introducing the briefing, Ms. Maria Dimitriadou, World Bank Special Representative to the UN and the WTO, appreciated the participation of missions, and committed to continue sharing knowledge to inform their work, while Ms. Nadia Isler, Director of the SDG Lab moderated the discussion.
- “COVID-19 has severely impacted economic activity in sub-Saharan Africa. Charting the road to recovery will require implementing policy reforms that boost productivity-driven growth, build human capital, and create more, better and inclusive jobs.” - Ms. Maria Dimitriadou, World Bank Special Representative to the UN and the WTO
- “COVID-19 has bluntly amplified the relevance of the SDGs and how complex and integrated our actions and behaviors are. Finding the incentives that will drive more cross-sector policies and actions is what will accelerate results on the 2030 Agenda.” - Ms. Nadia Isler, Director of the SDG Lab at UN Geneva
- “Focusing on inclusive productivity growth policies based on a digital, a sectorial and a spatial transformation, this is how we will construct an inclusive recovery in African countries moving forward.” - Dr. Albert Zeufack, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa
- “COVID-19 has shown us that robust and resilient broadband networks must be considered basic infrastructure, as fundamental to the social and economic health of nations, as networks like water, roads or power. Broadband is the catalyst that can dramatically accelerate progress towards the SDGs.” - Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau
- “Fighting the pandemic taught us that we have to digitalize entire processes, from payments to bio-metric IDs: these [kind of advances] are going to be the real game changers.” - Ms. Cina Lawson, Minister of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation of the Republic of Togo