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First Female Head of UN Economic Commission for Africa: Vera Songwe

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Announced in April by UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, Dr. Vera Songwe has become the first woman ever to head the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, UNECA is one of the UN’s five regional commissions, and was established in 1958 to encourage economic cooperation among the nations of the African continent. A prestigious position by itself, Songwe has also acquired the rank of Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations.  

Beating more than 70 candidates for the role, Songwe, aged 48, takes over the reins of the organization at a critical time, following the departure of Dr. Carlos Lopes of Guinea-Bissau, who stepped down from the organization in September, last year. Labelled as one of 25 African’s ‘to follow,’ by the Financial Times in 2015, the UN reported that her longstanding track record of policy advice and results orientated implementation in the region, as well as, her demonstrated strong and clear strategic vision for the continent, is what lead to the decision.

Track Record in Economics

Before her appointment, Songwe was serving as the International Finance Corporation’s Regional Director, covering West and Central Africa. Between 2012 and 2015 she was the World Bank’s Country Director for Senegal, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania. Before that, she held the post of Advisor to the Managing Director of the World Bank for Africa, Europe and Central Asia, and South Asia. She is also currently a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Global Development African Growth Initiative, since 2011.

Starting her professional journey as a Young Professional at the World Bank in 1998, Songwe worked in the Middle East and North Africa region covering Morocco and Tunisia in the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management unit (PREM). Later she joined the East Asia and Pacific region PREM unit where she held several roles, such as, Regional PRSP Coordinator, Country Sector Coordinator and Senior Economist for the Philippines. She has also worked in Mongolia and Cambodia for the World Bank.

Born in 1968, Songwe earned a PhD in Mathematical Economics at the Center for Operations Research and Econometrics, as well as a Master of Arts in Law and Economics, and a Diploma of Profound Studies in Economic Sciences and Politics, from the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium. She also has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Political Science from the University of Michigan in the United States. Songwe has also published several papers on governance, fiscal policy, agriculture and commodity price volatility, and trade and new financial infrastructure.

In the Shadow of Lopes

With the departure of the charismatic, and sometimes combative, Carlos Lopes, Songwe arrives in an institution where her predecessor has left a large imprint. Joining the organization in 2012, Lopes has been credited with reshaping UNECA and raising it out of obscurity on the continent. According to The East African news outlet, Lopes championed the need for improved data and statistics for informed decision making. He was the first to call for debt cancellation for the Ebola-effected countries in Africa, and led a team to demonstrate the economic impact projections on Africa were highly exaggerated and part of a negative narrative. During his resignation, Lopes was also praised by colleagues for taking the relationship between the organization, its partners and member states, to a higher level, for beautifying the UNECA compound, leading UNECA to host big conferences impacting on Africa’s development and empowering employees and ensuring gender parity in the organization.

Songwe’s Vision

However, Songwe is not without her own talents and tenacity. With some 20 years at the World Bank, Songwe’s new duties of advising African governments on their development projects will be well within her grasp. Described by her colleagues as a hardworking and competent leader, she is on the selection committee for the Tony Elumelu Foundation, an annual program of training, funding and mentoring for the next generation of African entrepreneurs and the influential African Leadership Network. According to RFI, as the new Executive Secretary for UNECA, Songwe will give priority to innovative financing, agriculture, energy, and economic governance.


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Africa fails to benefit from global investment surge

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Chemical Industry

Direct investment to Africa declined by 7% to $54 billion, giving the continent only 3% of the total worldwide investment, according to a new United Nations report.

Direct foreign investment soared in 2015 to its highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis, but Africa did not share in the wealth.

Globally, direct investment flows increased by 40% to $1.8 trillion, according to World Investment Report 2016 (pdf) by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development.

At the same time, direct investment to Africa declined by 7% to $54 billion, giving the continent only 3% of the total worldwide investment.

While investment in North African nations, notably Egypt, increased, sub-Saharan Africa saw declines as resource-based commodities faltered and economies weakened, led by a decline of more than 60% in South Africa.

Egypt, Sudan see growth

Investment flows to North Africa increased by 9% to $12.6 billion, an increase largely driven by a boost in Egypt of 49% to $6.9 billion. The increase in Egypt reflected expansion of foreign investment in banking and pharmaceuticals as well as large investments in telecommunications.

Investment in Sudan increased 39% to $1.7 billion, thanks largely to continuing Chinese investment in oil production.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Angola reported investment more than tripled to a record $8.7 billion in investment in 2015 after years of declines. The UN report said the increase reflected loans to local institutions by foreign parent organizations.

Elsewhere on the southern continent, weak commodity prices stifled investment.

Investment in West Africa decreased by nearly 20% to less than $10 billion, in large part because of a slump in investment in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. Investment fell to $3.1 billion last year largely because of lower commodity prices, a faltering currency, and delays in major developments such as multi-billion dollar offshore oil operations.

Investment in Central Africa declines

In Central Africa, investment inflows dropped by more than a third to $5.8 billion. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Congo reported declines as commodities operations suspended operations.

Factory Workers in Kayonza, Africa

Factory Workers in Kayonza, Africa

East African investment was steady at $7.8 billion.

The European Union and the United States invested more than $2 million in Ethiopia. Investment in Kenya reached a record $1.5 billion as a result of investor confidence in the business environment and growing domestic consumption.

Southern African investment also held steady at just under $18 billion, driven primarily by the large increase in investment in Angola.

South Africa posts steep drop

Other nations saw steep declines. Investment in South Africa fell by 69% to $1.8 billion, its lowest level in a decade. The UN report said weak economic performance, lower commodity and higher power costs were to blame.

After years of record growth, Mozambique saw a 24% decline to $3.7 billion. The report blamed uncertainty about the 2015 elections and lower gas prices as well as the cancellation of major mining operations.

Meanwhile, investment outflows from Africa also declined by 25% to $11 billion because of weaker export demand and falling commodity prices. The continent’s largest foreign investor, South Africa, cut its investments by 30% to $5.3 billion. Angola investors reduced their investment abroad to $1.9 billion, less than half the 2014 amount.

U.S., U.K. lead in African investments

The top investor economies to Africa in 2015 were the United States ($66 billion), the United Kingdom ($64 billion), and France ($52 billion). As China seeks to increase ties to the continent, direct investment from the Asian nation more than tripled from $9 billion to $32 billion. South Africa was the fifth largest investor to the continent at $26 billion.

The report said the global investment surge was unlikely to continue at 2015 levels. It attributed the 2015 increase to a spate of cross-border acquisitions and  mergers.

The United Nations said investment to Africa could grow this year to as much as $60 billion. New projects valued at nearly $30 billion were announced in the first quarter of the year, up 25% from the same period a year earlier.

The report predicted the largest increases in Egypt and North Africa. “But a more optimistic scenario also prevails more widely, for example in Ethiopia, Mozambique,  Rwanda and the United Republic of Tanzania,” the report said.

However, depressed prices for oil and mining commodities will continue to be a drag on investment in other parts of Africa.

“The world economy continues to face major headwinds, which are unlikely to ease in the near term,” the report said.

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