His Highness the Aga Khan delivers the keynote address at the Africa 2016 Forum on 21 February at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. AKDN / Zahur Ramji
Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 21 February 2016 – His Highness the Aga Khan today extolled Africa’s resilience, economic progress and new willingness to accept diversity.
“What I see emerging today is a refreshingly balanced confidence in Africa – a spirit that takes encouragement from past progress, while also seeking new answers to new challenges,” he said.
The Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims made the remarks in a keynote address to the “Africa 2016: Business for Africa, Egypt and the World” conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, hosted by Egypt’s president, His Excellency Abdel Fattah el Sisi.
The Aga Khan noted the decidedly upbeat spirit about Africa’s economic future that emanated from the speeches of African leaders taking part in the conference. “My enthusiasm today is especially strong because of the message which is at the heart of this Forum. And that message is, quite simply, that Africa’s Moment has come,” he declared.
While cautioning that Africa still faced formidable challenges, including high unemployment levels among the continent’s young people, he said that the continent had made significant progress in a number of key areas.
“The story of Africa’s progress and potential is also impressive – whether we talk about growing GDP and foreign direct investment, whether we look at economic diversification and national resiliency, whether we chart the rise of a vital middle class – and the expansion of consumer spending – now breaking through the one trillion dollar mark,” he said.
He noted that the experience of the Aga Khan Development Network, which is active in 13 African countries and works in an array of sectors ranging from health to education to culture to economic development, supports the positive picture.
He observed that fragmentation has long been one of the continent’s main weaknesses. “The problem of fragmentation has often afflicted Africa, separating tribe from tribe, country from country, the private sector from the public sector – those who hold political power from those who are in the opposition,” he explained.
And yet the Aga Khan noted that Africa has shown new willingness to embrace diversity and emphasised the importance civil society in creating an enabling environment for progress.
“In sum I believe that social progress will require quality inputs from all three sectors – public, private and Civil Society. Sustainable progress will build on a three-legged stool,” he said, arguing that “cooperating across traditional lines of division does not mean erasing our proud, independent identities. But it does mean finding additional, enriching identities as members of larger communities – and ultimately, as people who share a common humanity. It means committing ourselves to an Ethic of Pluralism.”
Building on this idea, the Aga Khan emphasised the need for strong Civil Society institutions in Africa’s quest for development, noting that Civil Society has often been underappreciated, marginalised or even dismissed.
“I focus on Civil Society because I think its potential is often under-appreciated as we become absorbed in debates about the most effective programs of governments and others, or the most successful business strategies. But, in fact, it is often the quality of the third sector, Civil Society, that is the “difference-maker”. It not only complements the work of the private and public sectors, it can often help complete that work,” he said.
He lauded the positive role Civil Society played at key junctions in Africa’s recent history. “The influence of Civil Society has also been felt at seminal moments in the continent’s recent history, for example: in shaping the Arusha Accords which recently ended 12 years of civil war in Burundi, in the peaceful resolution of the violent clashes in Kenya following the 2007 elections, in the drafting of a new promising Tunisian Constitution, and in the courageous response to the Ebola crisis” he said.