To curb the migrant crisis, the world must invest in Africa


The Right Honorable Paul Martin was prime minister of Canada from 2003 to 2006 and minister of finance from 1993 to 2002.

MONTREAL — Migration is a good thing. That should be an easy way to begin a commentary. But in the second decade of the century, migration has become a divisive political issue. A decade of recession and suboptimal economic growth has created an unwillingness among many to make room for outsiders. Talking about border walls has become an easy way to win votes and, in some instances, elections.

People move because they want to improve their lives. This impulse has created some of the world’s most vibrant societies. Canada was developed by immigrants from around the world. The Canadian winter didn’t stop them. Walls, bans and quotas won’t stop migration elsewhere either.

In Canada, the fact is we need immigrants and their contribution to our society and economy is self-evident. However, if others in the West are reluctant to open their doors, what should they do? The only answer that will work is to focus less on deterrents and put more effort into giving the world’s beleaguered people fewer reasons to leave home.

Consider Africa. Over the next couple of decades, the sub-Saharan workforce will grow more than the working-age populations of the rest of the world’s regions combined. The continent’s population is exploding because infant mortality rates have plunged, while birth rates have remained constant. This in itself is good news. But unless something changes, far too many of those children will grow up poor. And when they reach adulthood, their only path to a better life will be one that leads them away from their family, friends and home.

More than 10 million young Africans enter the workforce each year, yet the continent creates only about three million jobs annually. That gap heralds a future of poverty and migration that will reverberate around the world. Even if displacement from war and famine recedes, millions of Africans will still feel compelled to leave in search of better lives, regardless of the barriers in their paths. The only way to keep this from happening is to guarantee job growth and living conditions that will enable them to stay where they want to stay — at home.

Let me make two suggestions. First, the African Development Bank has recognized this need with its “Jobs for Youth in Africa” program, which by strengthening human capital aims to create 25 million jobs over the next decade. In this context, it will be important that African countries remove the societal constraints that block girls from getting a decent education. Girls and young women are held back by restraints that only can be broken by a concerted effort by local governments.

UNESCO estimates that more than 7 million girls of primary school age will never see a classroom, while Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year that 49 million sub-Saharan girls weren’t attending primary or secondary school. This potential could be unlocked with relatively little funding. It just requires the political will to insist girls are given the same opportunities to learn as boys are.

A second suggestion: Africa has a number of regional markets, but what it needs is a continental one. The borders of its 54 countries limit the economies of scale that Africa’s massive population could offer. Leaders needn’t replicate the European Union; a common currency is the last thing the continent needs. But if individual African countries are to meet their economic potential, they must make it easier to trade across the continent. Artificial barriers must disappear, including protective import tariffs or unnecessary customs bureaucracy.

At the same time, Africa must build the infrastructure needed to move goods and people around the continent. It is ridiculous that it is easier for most African countries to ship goods to Europe than it is to their neighbors. It is even more difficult to understand why gaps persist when one contemplates the number of jobs that a continental infrastructure project would generate.

Of course, building infrastructure of this magnitude is costly and beyond Africa’s current capacity to fund. Some will respond that donor countries can’t do this on their own. Given the stakes, this is arguable. Nevertheless, large pension funds and other sources of private capital are eager to back projects of this kind, especially if they have donor governments as their partners. Africa should take full advantage of this. It is incomprehensible that almost half the population has no access to the electrical grid, even though untapped hydroelectric projects have the potential to power two-thirds of the continent.

And to those whose governments would spend their money building barriers to migration, consider this: the International Monetary Fund estimates that Africa needs about $100 billion of investment in infrastructure per year to meet its economic potential and that it currently receives only half that amount. Reversing that shortfall would have a dramatic effect on migration. The infrastructure deficit costs the region two percentage points of economic growth per year. Unleash that growth, and Africans will choose jobs at home over perilous quests for work abroad, which furthermore will have the added benefit of growing a larger middle class and hence ultimately a more responsive government.

What I am advocating is no more than what others have done. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers shared some remarkable statistics in a speech for the Center for Global Development in early November. “Fifty percent is the growth that has been achieved in a variety of six-year periods in China over the last generation and in many other countries as well,” Summers said. “If you look at material standards of living, we have seen more progress for more people and more catching up than ever before.”

My question: Why can’t we help Africa do the same?

This year, Germany sought to convince the rest of the G20 to back the Compact with Africa, an initiative to facilitate investment in the continent. It is a beginning. We should pick up on it now.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.