Donald Kaberuka was president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) from 2005 to 2015 and, prior to that, the finance minister of Rwanda. He may have stepped back from public life, but his remains a powerful voice – one which resonates in the arena of African and global development and which continues to influence and shape the future of his beloved African continent. It turns out, though, that public service was not his first choice of career.
“Like many young boys, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, or even whether there were any options possible for young refugee boys,” he recalls. “Anyway, like most boys, I dreamt of being a pilot, a doctor or an engineer – the kinds of profession young teenagers idolise. Our family, like that of many Rwandans of my generation, lived for many years in refugee camps. Life was hazardous, and refugees don’t have many choices. Eventually, though, I got into school and university to study economics and ended up in the world of finance, as it was a natural progression.”
He goes on to say that he has been “privileged” in many ways. “Firstly, to be called upon to serve my country in a pivotal position of finance minister, alongside many other Rwandans who were involved in the important task of national reconstruction, and later on to serve the continent as a whole as head of its premier development bank,” he explains. “In both tasks, it was an opportunity to bring my modest contribution to bear at a significant time for Africa. Both missions were very challenging but also very exciting responsibilities, which I embraced with much fire in the belly.”
Delivering a difference
Dr Kaberuka’s career is marked out with positions of ever-increasing African focus. He started in the commodities business, including a term as chief economist of the Inter-African Coffee Organisation. And during his term as finance minister, he also was serving as governor for Rwanda for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, gaining a deeper understanding of how international organisations could more effectively support the development of low-income countries, especially in Africa.
He was then elected AfDB president in 2005 and re-elected in 2010. During his 10 years in office, the AfDB rose to be the number one lender to African countries, playing a major countercyclical role during the global financial crisis. His tenure coincided with a dynamic period in Africa, years of much change in African economies with their rapid growth reversing years of stagnation. The AfDB stepped up by leading from the front on infrastructure, boosting private sector lending, significantly strengthening its franchise value, tripling its capital from US$30 billion to US$100 billion, and doubling its portfolio.
He is keen to stress, though, that any impact he achieved in these positions was very much a team effort. “Impact is cumulative,” he says firmly. “Impact is not the result of one single person or one single policy. It is a combination – both cumulative and incremental – of what different people do and what different policies achieve. And so one has to be careful in terms of attribution.”
He goes on to suggest that this is true in government, the corporate world and international organisations as well. “In government, it is very much a collective responsibility: a minister is implementing cabinet decisions and must work in close tandem with his or her cabinet colleagues to implement programmes and initiatives,” he explains. “It is never a one-man show. When you are the finance minister of a country, whether rich or less well off, there are many decisions that you take that are important, but you have to work with your cabinet colleagues to see them through.”
During his decade at the AfDB, Dr Kaberuka’s tenure was marked by measures to increase the role of the private sector in Africa, as well as boosting new infrastructure across the continent to the tune of US$28 billion. No surprise, then, that he was nicknamed “Mr Infrastructure”.
He points out that in an effort to champion inclusivity and leave no-one behind, under his leadership the AfDB established a ring-fenced facility for conflict-affected countries and fragile states. To this end, he appointed an international High-Level Panel on Fragile States, led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Dr Kaberuka, keen to ensure Africa became less dependent on the outside world, also saw the need for many resource-rich countries to use their natural resources more effectively. He put in place the African Natural Resource Center and the African Legal Support Facility to bolster African countries’ capacity to negotiate more effectively and improve governance in the extractives sectors such as oil, gas and minerals.
He says that he and his team had four main priorities. “Firstly, infrastructure – new highways, airports, IT, and so on. Secondly, economic integration and the African single market – we put a lot of emphasis on cross-border infrastructure to make sure it is easier to do business within the continent, as well as reduction of tariff and non-tariff restrictions, easier movement of people and goods, greater harmonisation and policy convergence. Thirdly, private sector development – improving the business environment and delivering better governance in general. And fourthly, providing robust support to countries emerging from conflict. Not only were these countries lagging behind but, given Africa’s balkanisation, there were often huge spillover effects on the rest of the continent. Our overarching goal was always about enabling Africa to move to higher levels of global value chains, with development driven by trade and investment and becoming progressively less reliant on external aid. In short, not simply economic growth but economic transformation.”
Some 18 months after stepping down from the AfDB, he says that economic transformation remains Africa’s priority. “Infrastructure is only a means to an end,” he points out. “We want greater participation in global trade by lowering the costs of doing business, and integrating Africa’s fragmented markets. This is a continent of 54 countries, and therefore facilitating the flow of goods and people is hugely important to fully realise the benefits of size and market diversity.”
That said, he is clear that addressing the deep-rooted infrastructure gap, estimated at US$42 billion a year across the continent, is something every country must prioritise. The task of attracting more private sector finance remains high on the priority list – starting by de-risking the early stages of those investments and thereby ensuring that private capital finds the projects attractive.
“Infrastructure is a long-term proposition, and private sector capital often prefers to buy ready-made things rather than build them,” he says. “So someone has to do early-stage de-risking to get them interested. Some infrastructure – like fibre optic cables and IT – already attracts private capital because of the lower risks and lower costs of entry as a result of the deregulation which took place in the 1990s. Public-private partnerships are growing in importance, but they are not a panacea. They are complex to mount and negotiate; however, improved regulation and capacity would make them more and more viable. When all’s said and done, though, it is clear that there are, and will always be, infrastructure investments using public money – such as roads to open up remote regions, new railways, and so on.”
Despite recent challenges on the economic and, in some areas, security fronts, Dr Kaberuka remains “bullish” on Africa’s prospects. “Africans are getting more assertive about better explaining what is happening on the continent,” he says. “As in other parts of the world, there are always going to be different things happening in different parts of Africa, because it is a continent with a complex tapestry, a mosaic of 54 different countries. When Europe has issues, as it does now in the western Balkans, do they say Europe is falling apart?”
Trends in focus
Dr Kaberuka believes that it is more important to stay focused on the horizon, eschewing the zero sum calculus, an occasional crisis, and a policy failure here and there. Instead, Africans should focus their attention on those well-known trends that are shaping the continent: demographic dynamics, the impact of technology, adapting to climate change, massive rural to urban migration, and so on.
“All these have implications not only for Africa but for global markets as well,” he says. “For example, Africa – like India, the Middle East and Asia – is a region with a young population. What is done today to equip the youthful population, and whose impact will be felt in 20 or 25 years, will be critical for the world as a whole in different ways.”
Dr Kaberuka argues that the key to unlocking this potential is a greater focus on education and skills. “The demographic dividend is a window that will open but also close rather quickly,” he points out. “Investing in education and skills will require the mobilisation of considerable resources, but it is an investment which politically, socially and economically has large dividends that can transform the future of nations. It will be critical for us to harness technology which offers a different way of providing education to everyone more effectively than has happened in the past. The digital space now offers access to millions of books, and teachers can teach thousands of people online. This is far cheaper now – thanks to technology.”
He also stresses that a certain degree of leapfrogging in providing education is both urgent and possible. “Africa has already demonstrated that it does not, after all, need so many telephone landlines, and that mobile phones are much more than voice devices and can also improve service delivery and financial inclusiveness,” he says. “A number of countries, such as Rwanda, are now even showing that you can deliver services to rural areas by drones.”
Dr Kaberuka believes the narrative on Africa, one that focuses on commodities, distracts both policymakers and business leaders from the task of focusing on knowledge and skills in tomorrow’s African – and global – economy.
“We are entering a world where the knowledge and skills – not the capital or natural resources – that a country possesses will be the deciding factor in creating wealth in the future,” he says. “And hence investing in education and getting better learning outcomes is the most important issue today. Too much emphasis is currently placed on gross enrolment and not the learning outcomes – ensuring that African youth come out of schools, colleges and other learning institutions with the right skills and tools that will enable countries to move up the global value chains. That is where the opportunities are to deal with the jobs crisis today and tomorrow.”
A future of immense promise
But Dr Kaberuka’s faith in Africa’s promise is still unwavering. He remains at the forefront of such arguments, both in Africa and in positions of influence around the world. Today, his is a portfolio career, which sees him juggle roles such as serving on boards of philanthropic organisations, academic institutions and thinktanks, advising corporates on opportunities across the continent, and assisting the African Union as special envoy for the peace fund and as a member of several panels on global development and finance issues. He also co-chairs, with former UK prime minister David Cameron, a panel on growth and development to explore new ways of supporting recovery for states coming out of conflict.
The hours are long and the roles remain demanding – but one suspects that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
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