Africa's potential is often overlooked. Yet the continent abounds in untapped natural and human resources. The United Nations, for example, estimates that there are over 800 million hectares of unused, cultivable land that could provide the basis for a green revolution in food production -- land which could be used to tackle food shortages in Africa and in other continents.
The remarkable progress that Africa has made in the past decade is also not widely recognized. Across the continent there are numerous success stories. We have seen the spread of free and fair elections, an increase in school enrollment rates and determined efforts to combat malaria. The boom in mobile phones has transformed communication and helped business.
The tragedy is that when millions of Africans believed their countries and continent were finally on the right track, their hopes are being dashed by problems whose roots lie elsewhere. While the global crisis and climate change are creations of the North, it is Africa which is worst affected and least able to cope. The social and political consequences are profound.
Yesterday, the Africa Progress Panel, on which we sit, launched its 2009 State of Africa report in Cape Town. We recognize that the roots of the development crisis often begin outside Africa. But the reality is that the main responsibility for tackling the challenges Africa faces lies with its own leaders.
This does not mean that the rest of the world can walk away. Africa's international partners have a critical part to play in supporting the continent's progress, and share responsibility for tackling imported problems. They also have an interest to do so: social tension and political instability in Africa have clear international costs and consequences.
At a time when other financial flows are dropping, G8 and donor countries have an even greater responsibility to honor their international aid commitments and to ensure that global deals, whether on trade, climate change, intellectual property, illicit drugs, crime or migration, are supportive of Africa's development needs. Aid, effectively used, can leverage other financial flows, strengthen capacities and meet urgent social and humanitarian needs.
But without bold, focused and sustained leadership from African Governments, outside assistance won't safeguard the continent's people or protect the progress already made.
Big problems create the opportunity for big thinking. Africa's leaders, who have already shown what can be achieved, now need to redouble their efforts to guide their continent through these challenges.
They also need the active participation of their citizens. Accountability of leadership is paramount. Holding those in authority to account is a tradition and practice that has long roots in Africa's culture. But in many parts of the continent, it is frayed. There are too many instances of corruption, growing inequality in wealth and opportunity, and the abuse of power.
Alongside determined and accountable leadership at the national level, a strong, united position on the global stage is vital. A forcefully negotiated common African position on climate change, for example, is needed for Copenhagen Summit. We have already seen how effective unity can be. The meeting of African leaders in London ahead of the G20 Summit ensured the needs of the developing world were not forgotten. It played a major role in the G20s funding pledges, including the $100 billion for international development banks to lend to the poorest countries.
Clear-sighted African leadership, supported by effective international partnership, can turn the challenges Africa is facing into an opportunity. The APP believes that Africa can take the lead in pioneering a new, low-carbon development model. The take off of the mobile phone in Africa ended the need for an expensive network of landlines to be put in place. In the same way, the continent can make use of its vast solar, hydro, wind, thermal and biomass resources to drive forward its renewable energy sector, leapfrogging the outdated, fossil fuel based system.
The scope for investment in Africa's infrastructure, agriculture and communications are vast. So are the benefits it could bring. The spread of financial services to the poor has shown the potential for innovative investments. A drive for investment in these sectors will not only create jobs and increased trade in Africa, but also create markets for developed countries in these difficult times.
Africa is enormously rich in potential. Amidst the gloom, there is an opportunity to be seized. If we have the courage and vision to rise to the challenge, it will benefit the 900 million people who live on the continent and create a valuable growth platform for the global economy.
Kofi Annan, Graca Machel and Michel Camdessus are members of the Africa Progress Panel (www.africaprogresspanel.org)