The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges and opportunities of Africa’s development landscape, former British prime minister Tony Blair said on Monday in a lecture organized by the African Development Institute in Abidjan.

“We have the same problems but what we also have is vastly increased urgency…not so much a wake-up call but a wake-up command,” Blair said.

The former UK prime minister addressed a virtual audience on the topic Building Back Better in Post COVID-19 Africa: The Role of Technology and Governance, as part of the Kofi A. Annan Lecture Series. 

The series, launched by the African Development Bank’s African Development Institute in 2006, has covered a range of African and global development topics, including economics, finance, regional integration, human development and the environment. The lectures have been a forum for eminent persons to share policy insights on development challenges in Africa.

Over 4,500 delegates from across the globe including Government Officials, Governors and Executive Directors of the Bank Group, the Bank’s Senior Management, and leading experts and heads of institutions tuned in to the lecture.

In opening remarks, Rabah Arezki, Chief Economist and Vice President for Economic Governance and Knowledge Management of the Bank described the task ahead as “vast and challenging.”

Mr. Blair, in his first ever virtual lecture, outlined three aspects which in his words would make a big difference to Africa: investing in industrialization, accelerating technological innovations, and building capacity for institutions to get things done. 

“There are components to the Bank’s High 5 priorities. All of those things which define the challenges that Africa has – all of those are now given added urgency by Covid and its impact,” Blair said.

West Africa can lead with cotton for garment production

To build back better, West Africa, for instance, could capitalize on its rich source of cotton for garment production and the textile industry. Elsewhere on the continent, Africa was already leading in the digital technology space which can be scaled up.

“Around the world you are seeing governments use technology effectively…I know this is a great ambition of the African Development Bank. This is critical,” Blair said.

Blair highlighted the four Ps of government delivery – prioritization, policy, personnel and performance management. On prioritization, Mr. Blair called on African governments to identify and focus on their comparative advantages and delivery. 

“In the end…only Africa can do it… we are partners in Africa’s story…in Africa’s progress,” Blair said.

Agriculture is Africa best opportunity for industrialization

African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina and Tony Blair
African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina and Tony Blair

His speech was followed by a conversation with Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina, who said the lecture series brought global and national perspectives to the development issues discussed.

“We need to constantly push the frontiers of dialogue in the public sphere,” Adesina said. “Nothing is more topical today than the challenges posed by COVID-19. The pandemic has upended economic growth.” Mr. Adesina noted.

Agreeing with Mr. Blair about the importance of the culture of delivery, Adesina said agriculture offered Africa its best opportunity for industrialization. 

“The key is: how does Africa raise productivity in agriculture…how does it develop the integrated infrastructure in those rural areas…that will allow the creation of new economic sources of prosperity out of what it has?” Adesina asked.

Although the Bank’s Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) initiative had allowed it to reach millions of farmers with agricultural technology and is boosting yields in wheat, there is still the need to scale up. 

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“We have a lot of pilots…The name of the game is scale,” Adesina said.

Adesina cited other key interventions by the Bank, including a $10 billion COVID-19 Response Facility to provide budget support to African countries and its innovative $3 billion COVID-19 social bond, to save livelihoods.

After retiring from office, Blair launched the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which works on some of the most difficult challenges in the world today, primarily in three areas: supporting governments to deliver effectively for their people, working for peace in the Middle East, and countering extremism.

Speaking after the seminar, Prof. Kevin Urama, Senior Director of the ADI said the priorities are well mapped out for Africa to build back better. 

The African Development Institute (ADI) has been at the forefront of accelerating capacity development, technical assistance and policy dialogue on the continent.