In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond examines various factors that led to instances of societal collapse in the past, and argues that our modern society faces many of these same challenges but on a larger scale. Today, let alone the collapse of societies, there is even a risk to the survival of our species.
Diamond was one of the first to propose that climate change and environmental degradation could lead civilizations to collapse. According to him, our current society is unsustainable and unless we make profound changes in behavior. History he showed us is full of examples of civilizational collapse because of limited resources and exploding populations.
Africa is the focus of world population growth this century. The African population is expected to increase from about 1.3 billion in 2020 to 4.5 billion by 2100, the biggest change in human history in just a few generations. If economic development and industrialization continue to be based on fossil fuel, it would probably mean the end of the planet.
Climate change and the environmental consequences will have increasing impact on the continent in the next few years. As we saw with the recent locust invasion in East Africa, Africa will see a number of environmental challenges, ranging from desertification to natural disasters, and new pandemics similar to Ebola could arrive very soon. This, coupled with a population explosion humankind, could make Africa the first “failed continent” in human history.
Any country would struggle to provide subsidized shelter, education, jobs, healthcare, and pensions for such a fast-growing population. Nor will it be possible to manage the brutal urbanization that will inevitably follow the provision of the required infrastructure, transportation, and telecommunications.
Looking to emulate “First World” societies, the youth in Africa will want improved living standards, and if they cannot get them at home, they will go in search of it, making the current migration surge to Western countries look like a picnic.
Political and Economic Challenges
Fast population growth also has implications for democracy. Many African dictators have been in power for decades. Neither party systems nor civil society organizations seem to be able to take the lead in a democratic transition. Compounding the problems of inefficient institutions, endemic corruption, and a lack of capacity and know-how are weak states, climate change, and resource scarcity. It’s a recipe for collapse. And COVID-19 has become a threat multiplier.
Besides the health crisis, the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for Africa will be the economic and political ones. A report by the African Union warns that Africa could lose about 20 million jobs in 2020 due to the pandemic. This report was, however, done at the beginning of the spread of the disease in Africa, when there were relatively few cases. Another study, “Tackling COVID-19 in Africa” by McKinsey & Company—also compiled at the beginning of the pandemic on the continent—predicted that Africa’s economies could experience a loss of between US$90 billion and US$200 billion in 2020. But if the pandemic were to continue into 2021, as is starting to appear likely, things will get much worse.
For post-pandemic recovery, there would therefore be a strong need to increase the welfare state in all African countries, with Keynesian policies of government support. But this risks a mounting debt crisis for many African states. Africa already has some of the poorest and most indebted countries in the world, including Eritrea with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 127 percent and Mozambique with a ratio of 124 percent.
Competition among the major world powers has led to China in particular seeking to gain influence on the African continent by using debt-trap diplomacy. It extends large loans for infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative, but uses these investments to demand greater influence and access to commodities.
At social and political level, much unrest and instability are anticipated as the economic crisis unfolds this year and even more so next year. Furthermore, political heavy-handedness and anti-democratic enforcement measures will risk provoking more popular unrest. Since refugees, migrants, and displaced people across Africa are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission, governments should help to control the refugee camps and avoid border closures that could put vulnerable people at greater risk. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the health infrastructure in Africa is inadequate to deal with such crises.
An Opportunity for Change
Yet not all is lost. The future always brings challenges and threats, but also possibilities and opportunities.
Africa could still do a lot with good leadership and cooperation. And the post-COVID-19 era could provide the opportunity for change. The most important step for Africa in the near future is to move rapidly toward an integrated market by implementing the African Free Trade Zone, and at the same time to have the support of Europe.
The Mediterranean could again become the bridge between Europe and Africa, with the possibility to make societies on either side flourish again. Instead of being the cemetery for migrants trying to cross its waters, the Mediterranean could become the connector between civilizations and histories, markets and people, for a future of prosperity and peace on both shores.
To make Africa the region of opportunities, both the Europe Union and the African Union will have to invest in the stability of the continent and in the human security of its people.
The United Nations has defined human security as “freedom from fear, from want, and from indignity,” but human security in Africa is at the lowest level in the world.
To invest in human security in Africa means first of all to address the root causes of instability and to carry out a real “peace-building” process with investments at the social, political, and economic levels of society.
Addressing the root causes of instability would involve combating endemic corruption at institutional level, empowering civil society organizations, supporting democratization, and working with international businesses to stop the pillaging of African resources. It also requires speaking out about human rights violations, tackling the security-development nexus, fighting armed groups benefitting from economic underdevelopment, supporting local economic development, and ending gender inequality and violence against women.
A Marshall Plan For Africa
Europe and the African continent will have to make important choices over the next few decades after the pandemic-induced economic crisis, which will be much worse than the economic downturn that started in 1929 leading to the "Great Depression."
This will be the decisive century for the survival of the world, and Africa and Europe will take center stage. The European Union could consider something similar to the United States’ Marshall Plan, a program to provide aid to a devastated Europe after World War II. My own country, Italy, was the third largest recipient of Marshall Plan aid. Decades after independence, African countries are still recovering from the effects of colonialism and the dictatorships that followed it, which Europe often supported. A similar plan should be developed for these countries.
The European Union will have to choose between pivoting to Africa or looking inward while struggling with domestic economic stagnation, and possibly losing the opportunity to become the cooperative leader that the world needs in this century. And Africa will have to decide whether it will look to the future or keep blaming the past.
These are tough choices, but there is no easy solution for ensuring the future of humankind: we need visionary leadership and courageous actions, or face the collapse of societies.
Maurizio Geri is an analyst on peace, security, defense, and strategic foresight. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.