Africa in crisis, emerging Africa

Conflict and suffering – economic growth and emergence. It is through these, seemingly opposed, narratives that the African continent is often discussed today. How does the SDC perceive these narratives and how does it respond to them? SDC cooperation offices in Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe have given their inputs on the opportunities and challenges arising from these narratives.

Cars and motorcycles are driving on a road in Benin. Informal housing settlements have been built next to the road.

Rapid urbanization is one of the consequences of Africa’s economic development – here in Benin. © SDC

In April 2023, fighting broke out in Sudan. Large-scale violence has since gripped the country. The conflict has unleashed an unprecedented wave of migration (8 million people) – within Sudan but also to its neighboring countries. Refugees continue to find shelter in temporary camps with few prospects of a better life.

In April 2024, Johannesburg hosted a summit assembling promising African tech startups and connecting them with equity funders from across the world to discuss the African startup scene. The African Development Bank Group forecasts Africa to account for 11 of the 20 fastest-growing economies in 2024.

Conflict and suffering – economic growth and innovation. These two, seemingly opposed, narratives accurately describe current discussions surrounding Africa. This article reflects on these narratives and how the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) responds to them.

A man in a blue overall is walking on a street that is lined with potholes filled with water. Random vehicles line the side of the road, which is otherwise empty.
Tanzania – pictured here – is experiencing a prolonged period of economic growth. However, not everyone is benefitting. © SDC

Crisis or growth?

Several violent conflicts affect the continent. They are characterized by attacks on civilians and the lack of accountability for armed actors. Meanwhile, climate change is increasingly impacting food systems through climate hazards. Millions of people, among them many children, are at risk of extreme weather events, such as droughts and heavy rainfall. According to the IOM, climate shocks exacerbate conflict and violence, which are drivers of displacement. The fate of these refugees stands in contrast to the optimistic development plans devised by African leaders.

While development plans often fall short, African countries have achieved strong economic growth in the last 20 years and have as a result become more geopolitically assertive. The following factors are commonly listed as the key to Africa’s growth narrative: democratization in the aftermath of the Cold War, economic growth, an enhanced role in global trade, technological innovation, and the new generation of leaders on the African continent.

What is Swiss International Cooperation doing?

The FDFA’s Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy 2021-24 recognizes Africa’s economic development by listing countries that have demonstrated sustained growth (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia). Their economic policies, which support the development of the private sector, are seen as possible vectors for continent-wide development. As economic motors in Africa, they have created vibrant investment environments linked to blossoming startup ecosystems.

The SDC is active in 18 countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa ranging from economically emerging countries (i.e., Rwanda, Tanzania, Benin) to countries experiencing more challenging or crisis environments (i.e., Sahel region, Sudan, Somalia). Switzerland aims to increase its engagement with private sector actors, for example by focusing on young entrepreneurs whose startups have the potential to create jobs. Simultaneously, an emphasis is placed on human development challenges – for example the lack of access to basic services (health, education, water, energy).

In a speech held on this year’s Africa Day (25th May), SDC director general Patricia Danzi reiterated the priorities of Switzerland’s international cooperation: peace and governance, climate and environment, human development and sustainable economic development. Each of these priorities are highly relevant for Africa. In addition, she emphasized Switzerland’s continuing commitment to localization.

Two women are standing on a field. The woman on the right is holding a phone in her left hand. Both women are looking at the phone.
Two Kenyan women using Shamba Pride: Shamba Pride sells agricultural inputs, thus removing the need for intermediaries and lowering the cost of farming. © Shamba Pride

Experiences in Benin, the DRC and Zimbabwe

Elisabeth Pitteloud, Switzerland’s Head of Cooperation in Benin, sees that there was an "impulsion from the new government to change the image of Benin to be modern and dynamic." This image of modernity is challenged by the lack of access to basic services and growing regional inequalities. Switzerland’s bilateral cooperation is balancing its support between the government’s development plans in the booming coastal regions and focusing on basic service provision in the poorer North.

There was an impulsion from the new government to change image of Benin to be modern and dynamic.
Elisabeth Pitteloud, Head of Cooperation Benin

Economic growth in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), mainly based on the mining sector, is not achieving balanced development with high poverty rates and rampant social inequalities. Switzerland is focusing its support on the eastern DRC affected by protracted and resurgent conflicts with devastating humanitarian consequences. Switzerland prioritizes the most urgent needs, in alignment with governmental development and humanitarian response plans. According to Denise Lüthi, Head of Cooperation in the DRC, "Switzerland’s big advantage is that it is close to the population and it is capable of adapting to local contexts." Working with national organizations contributes to the legitimacy of Swiss programs.

In Zimbabwe, private sector engagement is a key part of the SDC’s interventions despite the noticeable prevailing crisis narratives. For Stefano Berti, Head of Cooperation in Zimbabwe, "narratives of crisis limit our perspectives on what is possible and thinkable when it comes to development." Engagement with the private sector has been a cause for optimism and a way to overcome this: the SDC’s support for the Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP) is a key example. Through the project, Switzerland provides early-stage grants to private actors whose innovative clean energy projects and technologies create jobs whilst simultaneously contributing to climate change mitigation.

Switzerland’s big advantage is that it is close to the population and it is capable of adapting to local contexts.
Denise Lüthi, Head of Cooperation Democratic Republic of the Congo

Lessons for the future

The success of engaging with the private sector and civil society further boosts the SDC’s efforts to continuously enhance its cooperation with national actors. This harnesses the potential of Africa’s youth and entrepreneurial spirit to facilitate development – for the poorest as well.

The SDC emphasizes that international cooperation in Africa must take into account the dynamics of growth and crisis in the local contexts where it is active in order to adequately respond to the diverse realities the continent is experiencing.

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