The last defenders of free trade are in Africa

The best word to describe the mood of the global economy these days is gloomy. The pessimism is closely tied to the loss of faith in free markets and free trade, the two forces that propelled the world economy for the last seven decades.

The United States, long the staunchest supporter of these ideas, has moved into full-scale mercantilist mode. Britain, the original free trade superpower, is pulling out of the European Union, its largest free trade relationship. China is striving to become less reliant on foreign firms and global supply chains. Everywhere the trend seems the same. Except in Africa.

Last month, unnoticed by much of the media, Africa's leaders announced the creation of a continentwide free trade area that will potentially bring together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion economic zone. The success of this project hinges on whether nations actually do reduce tariffs and other trade barriers, but if they do, trade could rise by as much as 50% in the next few decades, according to the International Monetary Fund. As the IMF put it, "This could be an economic game changer for the continent."

Africa has six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies. By 2050, a new African middle and upper class of 250 million people could stimulate a fivefold rise in demand for goods and services. The World Bank found that a third of all business-regulation reforms from 2017-2018 took place in sub-Saharan Africa, which also boasted five of the 10 most-improved economies in the institution's annual Doing Business Index. More than 400 African companies already take in at least $1 billion in annual revenues. All these data points come from a recent Brookings Institution op-ed, "The high growth promise of an integrated Africa," by Landry Signé and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim.

One country that has bet big on Africa is China. In 2000, trade between China and the entire African continent was $10 billion. Today it's $200 billion, making China its largest trading partner. Beijing has invested heavily in aid and loans for the region. President Xi Jinping hosted an African summit in Beijing in 2018 and announced that China plans to spend $60 billion in credit, investment and development projects for the continent in the next three years.

Of course, there are many caveats to the rosy picture of Africa. It's easier to announce the intention to reduce trade barriers than to actually enact such laws. Africa continues to face massive problems in the form of corruption and mismanagement, not to mention conflict. Some of the continent's promising growth statistics reflect the simple fact that Africa is rich in natural resources, and a growing world economy has created high demand for these products.

The most encouraging aspect of today's Africa is the striking rise in private business. The region has the highest rate of entrepreneurship, with 22% of working-age Africans launching new businesses, compared with 13% of their counterparts in Asia and 19% in Latin America. Places like Rwanda that are truly business-friendly and have a strong rule of law are experiencing sustained economic growth and rising standards of living.

I witnessed firsthand the energy of African entrepreneurs on a recent trip to Nigeria. I was a guest of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, which has committed $100 million to train and assist 10,000 entrepreneurs across the continent. The energy and optimism of these young men and women, from all 54 of Africa's countries, were infectious. Their only complaint was that the world was missing the big good news about their continent.

Africa will demand the world's attention over the coming decades. It will add 1 billion people to its population by 2050 and another 2 billion by the end of the century, at which point more than one out of three people on the planet will be African. That demographic boom could create enormous problems if it is not accompanied by job opportunities and political stability. But it could provide the world with energy and dynamism as populations age and growth slows in most of the rest of the world. Much of this will depend on Africa's leaders, who will have to finally fulfill the promise of the continent and its people. Too many have stolen from their people for too long.

Africans know the price they have paid by being locked out of global markets and of living in countries with limited private enterprise. They understand that the only real and sustainable path out of poverty is expanding free markets that are, of course, well-managed and regulated by effective governments. Much of the world today could be reminded of that simple lesson.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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