The Vice President for Africa at the World Bank Makhtar Diop stressed the need to focus on Africa’s enormous global economic potential at the second annual Georgetown Africa Business Conference in the Lohrfink Auditorium on Feb. 4.
Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, in conjunction with the Walsh School of Foreign Service’s African Studies Program, hosted the event to provide students, staff and community members with the opportunity to challenge common perceptions of the business world in Africa.
This year, the conference advanced this goal by highlighting developments in the African private sector and addressing the role of governance in this process. Speakers discussed various topics such as banking, women in business, agribusiness, infrastructure and resources in Africa.
The conference faced several unexpected roadblocks due to President Trump’s recent travel ban, which prevented a speaker and main benefactor from attending due to their Sudanese citizenship.
Event coordinator Courtney Maduike (SFS ’17) said the speaker decided not to travel to the United State for safety reasons due to the uncertain political situation.
“There are concerns about either being turned away once he gets to the States, or being detained, concerns about being able to get back home. There is just too much of a risk involved,” Maduike said.
Despite the initial shakeup with the cancelled appearances, the conference proceeded as planned otherwise.
In his opening remarks, Thomas Banchoff, vice president for global engagement at Georgetown, explained the conference draws upon Georgetown’s identity as a global university and center of academic excellence, as well as its Catholic and Jesuit mission.
According to Banchoff, the university is responsible for preparing students to succeed and become leaders in careers spanning increasingly transnational sectors. Banchoff said this includes a need to better engage with Africa and its economy.
“Africa is a growing interest on campus among our faculty and students, and within the international alumni community. Now it’s tempting here in Washington, D.C., to imagine that we can address many of the world’s problems from where we are, that we can export ideas and our solutions around the globe,” Banchoff said. “The job of a global university, especially one here in Washington, D.C., is to look, to listen and to learn.”
Professor and Managing Director of the Business, Society and Public Policy Initiative James Moore agreed with Banchoff and said the university needs to strengthen its relationship with Africa and further its understanding of it at the same time.
“The history of Africa is the history of us all, and its future will be our future. To simply ignore the world’s second largest and second most populated continent is not an option,” Moore said.
Diop gave the keynote address and explained the organization was eager to collaborate with Georgetown in any initiatives to reduce poverty on the continent and increase understanding of its economy.
Diop said the self-contained troubles of countries such as Nigeria, Angola and various others in central Africa are often taken to represent the state of the continent as a whole.
“The story is not at all true, and it is interesting to think that, any time there is a shock in Africa, we have a negative bias in terms of reporting what is coming out of the continent,” Diop said. “Some countries face some difficulties, but the vast majority of the continent and particularly the countries that are not relying heavily on oil, are growing very fast.”
During a question and answer session after his speech, Diop explained some of factors holding Africa’s economy back compared to the rest of the world. According to Diop, a lack of technology use and low concentrations of students who choose to pursue fields crucial to advancement contribute to some of Africa’s economic issues.
“Only 22 percent of the college graduates in Africa are graduating in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — compared to 40 percent in China,” Diop said. “If we want to be able to move that sort of isolation of African economies, we really need to accelerate access to science and technology and to change radically the education system.”
Diop said the perception of rising economic risk is part of the reason for low levels of foreign investment in African businesses. Large universities have the ability to bolster confidence and involvement in African economies. According to Diop, Asia should be used as a model, since in countries like Singapore, universities have expanded and opened new campuses with greatly beneficial results to local business.
“I would urge people to look at Africa the way they look at Asia in terms of exporting education,” Diop said.
According to Moore, the conference aimed to dispel ignorance about business in Africa while spreading awareness of the potential opportunities that exist there due to increase globalization.
“It has been often said that Africa is the dark continent. As I shared in last year’s conference, the only dark thing about Africa is our ignorance of it,” Moore said. “To somehow take a broad brush and make generalizations in the midst of such diversity and unique circumstances that each of Africa’s 54 countries possesses does all of us a disservice.”
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