Each year, May 25 — the anniversary of the founding in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity — is observed internationally as "Africa Day," a celebration of pan-African unity not only across the continent, but also among the African diaspora and Africa's international partners. Locally, this year's commemoration, coordinated by Washington's African Ambassadors Group, will take place on May 28, due to the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Irrespective of its precise date, Africa Day, as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in his message for this year's observance, is an opportunity to celebrate the continent's achievements as well as to reflect on its challenges.
While the emergence of Africa as an economic force, currently in one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted economic expansion in the history of the continent, as well as recent democratic gains — most notably in the generally peaceful elections in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and biggest economy, and the smooth transition set to take place this Friday between outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan and President-elect Muhammadu Buhari — point to the bright prospects for tomorrow, while the ongoing political and military conflicts, seemingly endless stream of migrants headed to Europe and the persistent high poverty rates in many African countries underscore today's problems.
The reality is that neither Africa's opportunities nor its challenges can be properly understood exclusively in economic terms of growth rates and investments, whether governmental or private sector. If material resources alone were assurance of good governance and development, the ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo would be one of the wealthiest places on the planet, rather than a near-failed state misruled for the last decade and a half by a president desperately trying to cling to office despite the plain language of a constitution he himself promulgated. Or is it any surprise that the Ebola virus epidemic found its epicenter in three of the poorest countries in Africa, places just recovering from long years of civil conflict, where the provision of even the most basic healthcare services proved too daunting of a task for the governments concerned? The inescapable conclusion is that sustainable development is inextricably linked to social and political progress.
While the clichéd slogan of "African solutions for African problems" has all too often been used as an excuse to avoid what are perceived as messy entanglements on the continent, it is also nevertheless true that, as President Obama told 500 young African participants in the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) ahead of last year's historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, "at some point, we have to stop looking somewhere else for solutions, and you have to start looking for solutions, internally."
In fact, there are many lessons African countries can learn from one another, especially in terms of getting on the path to sustainable development. Even as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were being overwhelmed by the rapid spread of the Ebola virus last year, other African countries, notably Nigeria and Senegal, quickly showed that the disease could be contained. While the resource-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo was ranked overall an abysmal 184 out of 189 countries and territories on the World Bank's Doing Business Index for 2015, its tiny, landlocked and densely populated neighbor, Rwanda, placed in 46th place and, tellingly, was ranked fourth globally in terms of getting credit, just after New Zealand, the United States and Columbia.
Increasingly, a number of African countries have also turned to Morocco, not only for the example of its decade-old National Human Development Initiative (INDH), which since its inception has invested over $6 billion on more than 700 locally administered educational and other anti-poverty projects, but also as a development partner. Last year, during a visit to Côte d’Ivoire, King Mohammed VI not only declared that "Morocco fully assumes its African vocation," but also affirmed that "South/South cooperation should be at the heart of the economic relationships" between African countries. This past week, the monarch arrived in Senegal, on another African trip that will take him onward to Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. Already, he has signed 13 agreements with Senegal's President Macky Sall, covering everything from customs to industry to tourism.
Moroccan philanthropies and business have not been slow to take up the king's call to increase their own involvement across Africa. The Mohammed VI Foundation for Sustainable Development has entered into a cooperation agreement with the Senegalese government to provide over $2 million in funding to a project in Dakar's Soumbedioune Bay that will give artisanal fishermen access to cold storage, a market and other facilities to increase their economic potential. The Moroccan-owned OCP Group recently announced a three-year, $5 million commitment that will ensure 100,000 small-holder farmers in six East and West African countries affordable access to appropriate fertilizers specific to their crops and soils as well as a range of services and support to turn these inputs into larger crop yields and, consequently, higher incomes. Morocco's two largest bank groups, Attiwarijafa and BMCE, now operate in 19 African countries; the latter institution, which has pioneered accessible financial services for the growing African middle class — for example, it operates 14 retail branches in just Bamako, Mali, alone — even recently unveiled at its annual meeting that it would rebrand itself as "BMCE Bank of Africa."
The organic emergence within Africa of such solutions to Africa's development challenges is of utmost importance to the continent's international partners, some of whom are beginning to recognize the potentially game-changing impact. The French Development Agency (AFD), for example, operating through its private-sector financing institution, Proparco, has advanced its development objectives in sub-Saharan Africa through investments in Attijariwafa's subsidiary in Mauritania and in BMCE's Bank of Africa network. In studies last year, I pointed out for U.S. policymakers Morocco's role both as a gateway to business in Africa given its free-trade agreement with the United States and as a critical player in regional counterterrorism and security efforts.
In its recent National Security Strategy, the Obama administration rightly acknowledged the changing dynamic in America's relationship with Africa: "For decades, American engagement with Africa was defined by aid to help Africans reduce insecurity, famine, and disease. In contrast, the partnerships we are forging today, and will expand in the coming years, aim to build upon the aspirations of Africans." To realize this important strategic objective, however, the United States needs to not only engage individual African youth, women and other leaders with dreams for tomorrow, but also those African countries, including Morocco, that are already providing homegrown solutions to the challenges faced by the continent, its nations and their peoples today.
Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.