In the early 2000s, a famous issue of The Economist called Africa “the hopeless continent.”
A few years later, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala set out to challenge that notion, becoming Nigeria’s first female prime minister of finance and later serving as managing director of the World Bank, where she would have a front row seat to Africa’s rise.
“Over the last few decades, African countries have shown that the continent is capable of tremendous progress,” Okonjo-Iweala said during a talk at Duke University last week. Living standards across the continent have gone up, access to healthcare has improved and conflict among countries has subsided.
“But despite this progress,” she said, “[Africa] is falling behind the rest of the world.” The continent faces continued challenges, Okonjo-Iweala said: poverty and debt are widespread, many economies are unstable, and people in rural areas still lack access to education and energy.
“So how do we move forward?” She posed the question to a room full of students and faculty members from across Africa and the world—from Madagascar, Togo and Kenya to Nepal, Australia and South Korea.
“I know this is a difficult question to answer,” she said, “but I’m here at Duke, right? I think Duke is in the business of answering the most difficult and important questions… That’s why I put this problem squarely in front of you.”
Okonjo-Iweala shared answers of her own. Africa’s future, she said, depends on transforming girls’ education, broadening energy access and leading the world in green infrastructure, especially across Africa’s three largest economies. Nigeria, South Africa and Angola together account for two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP.
“It stands to reason that unless we focus attention on these three countries and prioritize their development, we are not going to do better.”
Okonjo-Iweala believes Africa can do better. “Some people say we need a miracle on the continent, but I don’t really think it’s a question of a miracle,” she said. “We did right before. That means we can do right again.”
“We stand a chance to lead, and we can do it.”
Okonjo-Iweala’s talk was part of the Rethinking Development series co-hosted by the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies and the Duke Center for International Development. Watch her full talk (video by Wil Weldon) or an abbreviated version online.