The 73rd United Nations General Assembly opens in New York today. About 120 world leaders will gather at a time when uncertainty looms large and commitment to global development is flailing.
Leading global commentators like Fred Kempe of the Atlantic Council, suggest that the debate is less about the likelihood of a crisis and more about the form it might take. Kempe believes that mounting debt, trade wars and growing geopolitical risks could spin the world into a virulent crisis.
Africa’s debt is piling up. Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned African governments about mounting debt to China. The ratio of debt to GDP now exceeds 50 per cent in over half of sub-Saharan African countries.
According to the IMF, Mozambique’s debt is in distress and total public debt is on an unsustainable path. Other countries with worrying debt levels include Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Zambia, Sudan, and Chad. To address growing criticism, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged debt relief to some poorer African countries.
In an escalating tariffs war, Chinese products worth $250 billion are subject to tariffs. In retaliation, US goods worth $110 billion will be subject to tariffs. Moreover, President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ mantra could touch off trade wars with Latin America and Europe.
Trump will chair the UN Security Council meeting and will likely launch a blistering attack on Iran and accuse Tehran of aiding terrorism, lying about nuclear weapons and stoking instability in the entire Middle East. This will certainly raise geopolitical tensions.
A crisis is brewing in Africa. Africa’s population is set to double to two billion by 2050. Another doubling is expected at the end of the century, when the continent will be home to four billion. Africa’s rapid population growth presents real challenges and opportunities.
The foremost source of Africa’s challenge and opportunity is the youth bulge. About 80 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is below the age of 35. They need adequate nutrition and access to health services. They also need quality schools and teachers. When they complete school they need skills and access to tertiary education.
When they complete school and possess vocational skills and hold university degrees, Africa’s youth will need a stable and growing economy that provides well-paying jobs.
Africa’s looming debt crisis and reactive austerity measures now threaten to extinguish dreams of the youth and undermine the continent’s productivity and growth.
For example, Kenya is cutting spending on teachers, early learning and basic education, vocational and technical education, and university education and research.
These cuts will certainly undermine and erode modest gains on human capital development, which Africa sorely needs to power its growth. The effects of an economic crisis on the African continent will surge across the Sahara desert, wash up on the shores of Europe and ripple across the Atlantic.
This moment calls for global leadership. We hope the 73rd UN General Assembly will rise to the occasion and grapple with our common challenges.
Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University