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Building Africa

Nils ZimmermannSeptember 14, 2015

Africa's population will be five times Europe's by mid-century. Will the continent become a permanent source of desperate migrants, or a fabulous investment opportunity? Europe needs to engage, massively.

Symbolbild Afrika Bevölkerungswachstum
Image: picture alliance/WILDLIFE

The wave of migrants coming into Europe at the moment has a proximate cause - sectarian war and chaos in the Middle East - but it isn't a transient phenomenon. The current migration is just the beginning of a long-term trend that will almost certainly last for at least a hundred years.

The reason: Over that time-period, Africa's population is set to go from 1.16 billion today - exactly twice that of the European Union - to 2.4 billion by 2050. That's five times the EU's current population of 508 million. By 2100, according to the UN, Africa's population could be 4.2 billion - eight times that of today's EU.

The arc of Muslim countries from North Africa and the Middle East through South and Central Asia is also in the midst of a demographic explosion. According to Pew Research Center, the world's Muslim population will grow from 1.6 billion today to 2.8 billion by 2050.

If the Muslim world and Africa remain plagued by war, chaos, misrule, failed states and poverty - exacerbated by resource competition worsened by climate destabilisation, food and water insecurity - nothing and no-one will be able to hold back the flood of desperate refugees.

Nils Zimmermann Kommentarbild App
Nils Zimmermann is a free-lance business writer for DW

Europe's greatest challenge

The intense demographic pressures just beginning to impinge on Europe are already keenly felt in the countries of origin. They're going to become much bigger. They present an existential challenge for everyone concerned.

Europe needs to work out a coping strategy - and more than anything, that means helping our neighbors in the Muslim and African worlds work out coping strategies too. Our fate is inseparable from theirs.

This isn't news. When the topic of refugees and migration comes up, people invariably say "we have to help improve conditions in the countries producing these refugees, so their people won't feel driven to flee."

That's true, but it's vague. What specifically can or must be done?

Peace is a precondition for prosperity

There are three main drivers of conflict in Europe's neighborhood - the same three that plagued Europe for millennia, the same three the European Union was created to overcome: Resource competition, ethnic animosities, and religion.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are a multi-sided disaster in which Sunni-Shiite sectarian hatred, Arab-Iranian ethnic rivalry, great-power and regional geopolitics, oil and armaments-industry business interests, radical theofascist doctrines, and other malign factors have combined to generate an unholy tangle of weaponized insanity.

Syria and Iraq are looking more and more like the main theatre for the early stages of a 21st century Sunni-Shiite version of Europe's Catholic-versus-Protestant Thirty Years' War. This cannot be allowed to continue.

Europe can start by pushing for a comprehensive embargo on weapons sales into the region - let's stop adding fuel to the raging fire. Beyond that, the problem needs to be fixed at its roots: Totalitarian sectarian dogmas and ethnic hatreds are at work here. They need to be put to rest.

That's why Europe should fund sustained, very large-scale multimedia campaigns aimed at helping our neighbors have an open and honest conversation about religion. We all need to understand that taking religious dogmas too seriously is a fatal mistake. No-one should ever be killed over differences of received opinion about the nature of the Creator.

Similarly, Europeans have learned the hard way - or are still struggling to learn - that ethnic differences should be cherished, not resented or obliterated. Let's use media outreach to have a wider conversation about that with our neighbors.

Let's build a comprehensive network of Special Economic Zones

What about economic development? What can we do that will really change the game and make widely shared prosperity possible in places now very poor?

I believe we need to think big - and attack the problem as an engineering and business challenge of historic dimension.

A proposal: Europe's leading businesses, supported by the EU, African Union, African Development Bank, and other international institutions, should join forces to launch a Southern Sustainable Prosperity Project centred on setting up hundreds of Special Economic Zones throughout Africa and the less-developed parts of the Muslim world.

From those islands of prosperity and technical capacity, Africa could be seeded with the capabilities needed to build climate-safe clean energy systems, water and food security systems, health services delivery systems - the whole gamut of infrastructure needed for sustainable prosperity.

SEZs would become the nodes from which surrounding rural regions would be raised up and rebuilt - and the attractors inducing local populations to see their future at home, rather than abroad.

The administration of SEZs should be farmed out to professional management agencies with minimal interference from national authorities - because in nearly all African and Muslim countries, a new business culture free of graft and corruption needs to be built from the ground up. That's a politically difficult but necessary condition for success.

Common money, common interests

Africa could also learn from the EU's experiments and mistakes with a common currency. The German Bundesbank could offer to help set up and manage a new, wholly electronic, professionally administered pan-African trade currency with its own central bank - parallel to national currencies, not as a replacement for them. Such a tool could be enormously helpful in easing interregional trade and financing the construction of a prosperous, modern Africa.

There's a great deal of work to be done. Let the Syrian refugee crisis serve us all - Europeans, Africans, Middle Eastern peoples - as a warning and an impetus: It's high time to get very real about building enduring peace and prosperity in Africa and the Muslim world.