While Africa has seen significant progress in terms of inclusion in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to stall or even reverse these achievements. Those who were already marginalized in Africa prior to the pandemic find themselves in an even worse position now, including vulnerable groups such as women, youth, refugees, persons with disabilities, and the extreme poor.
On March 15, 2021, ACET and the World Bank brought together champions of inclusion for a discussion on the road to achieving a sustainable, resilient – and critically, inclusive – recovery across the African continent.
Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi, Executive Vice President of ACET, was joined by Simeon Ehui, Regional Director for Sustainable Development for Africa at the World Bank; Bineta Diop, the African Union (AU) Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security; Ndidi Nwuneli, Founder of LEAP Africa; and Maitreyi Bordia Das, Manager in the World Bank’s Urban, Resilience and Land Global Practice at the World Bank; and Louise Cord, Global Director for Social Sustainability and Inclusion at the World Bank, for a discussion moderated by Dimpho Lekgeu, Community Manager at Youth Lab.
According to Owusu-Gyamfi, the full impact will take years to be revealed, but it is imperative to act today to ensure that gaps are closed rather than widened as countries start to build back.
Similarly, Ehui’s opening remarks focused on the World Bank’s efforts to embed inclusion in its operations, including through the Environmental and Social Framework, and to promote women’s economic empowerment. He also gave insight into how the World Bank has responded to the devastating impacts of COVID-19 in Africa with nearly $12 billion support, including for learners with disabilities in Rwanda and the Gambia.
During the panel discussion, Maitreyi Das, the lead author of the World Bank’s Inclusion Matters in Africa report, emphasized that it is important to define what we mean by “inclusive” and that an inclusive recovery is more than an outcome – it is also a process. With that understanding, the panel put forth a wide range of solutions and ideas that would help catalyze social change as part of the inclusive recovery process.
Gender-inclusive solutions for recovery
Women have been particularly exposed to the consequences of lockdowns and the economic downturn, as they are more likely to work in the informal sector without social protections.
To help overcome the many obstacles faced by women entrepreneurs, Das pointed to the recent World Bank Report Women, Business and the Law, which provides a comprehensive overview of the barriers that women face when setting up their own businesses. Diop pushed for investment in women in agribusiness as a cost-effective pathway for achieving gender-inclusive growth and development.
Diop also called out the parallel “silent pandemic” of sexual and gender-based violence that COVID-19 has exacerbated. Research has shown that 51% of women in refugee camps and conflict zones experienced sexual violence amidst the lockdowns. The pandemic has brought greater attention to the fact that something needs to be done to fight this type of violence, Diop said. Suggestions included implementing legal instruments such as the Maputo Protocol and working on a new convention to address gender-based violence.
Owusu-Gyamfi announced that ACET is putting gender equity at the heart of its government advisory services on policies for recovery and economic transformation in Africa. ACET is also interested in doing more to help women in business access business development services, in cooperation with the World Bank. Working with financial institutions, ACET and the World Bank could ensure that more innovative products will emerge that are better tailored to address the specific challenges faced by vulnerable groups in Africa doing business.
In her closing remarks, Louise Cord, the Global Director for Social Sustainability and Inclusion at the World Bank, emphasized the cost of excluding women from the economic recovery. In over 140 countries, if women could have the same lifetime earnings as men, global wealth could increase by $172.3 trillion, she explained.
Building resilience through youth
The panel highlighted various ways that children and the youth were disproportionately impacted by the economic effects of COVID-19 – in Africa as in the rest of the world. Education and employment are two areas of particular significance.
Ndidi Nwuneli noted that now was the right time to address structural challenges in education in Africa – including solving the high attrition rate between primary and secondary schools, and promoting life skills development such as entrepreneurship, leadership, creativity, and time management. Nwuneli also raised the idea of increasing partnerships between governments and faith-based organizations to rapidly scale up skills training – in particular to take advantage of the underutilized but abundant and accessible space and amenities that churches and mosques could provide.
Owusu-Gyamfi discusse why much of the continent’s progress on access to education has been wiped out, with the digital divide emerging as another area where inequality is having a major impact. Because of their struggle with access to digital infrastructure, poor children could lose between 6-8 months’ worth of education. Economic disruptions have also forced many households to cut back on investments in their children’s education. Investment in digital infrastructure and the provision of incentives to ensure children return back to school will be essential to ensure a sustainable recovery.
COVID-19 has also seriously exacerbated challenges around youth employment. Prior to the pandemic, young people across Africa were already facing very high rates of unemployment (20%) and underemployment (50-70%), and with the economic crisis the young are often the first to lose their jobs. Nwuneli and Owusu-Gyamfi pointed to the importance of strengthening governments’ data collection capacity as part of finding the right local solutions.
However, the pandemic has also highlighted the positive long-term trend of young Africans using digital innovation and technology to create jobs and wealth through entrepreneurship – as demonstrated by successful startups such as Flutterwave, Twiga, Kobo360 and PayStack. Entrepreneurs across Africa would benefit from more support and financial backing through angel networks, impact investments, and government and private sector sponsored business development systems.
Throughout the panel discussions, participants drew on examples of ongoing and planned projects that are already designed with inclusion as a central component. Louise Cord spoke about the Community-Driven Development programs, designed around local participation and empowerment, that the World Bank is supporting across Africa. Bineta Diop explained that the African Union is using financial inclusion initiatives to boost women empowerment and promote entrepreneurship. Nwuneli spotlighted the Nourishing Africa Hub, which brings together a network of “agripreneurs” across Africa with the aim of transforming the African agricultural landscape. Ehui mentioned World Bank efforts to combat gender-based violence across the Great Lakes region.
Looking ahead, participants expressed the importance of forging partnerships to sustain the momentum for inclusive recovery. Organizations like the World Bank and ACET are keen to do more to work together to strengthen the institutional capacity of financial institutions and governments, push for more seats at the table for vulnerable groups, and help build knowledge-sharing and advocacy networks.