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Quality and standards: Game-changers for the post-COVID recovery of African economies?

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The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has organized a webinar onquality and standards in the context of post-COVID-19 recovery of African economies. It provided a multi-stakeholder platform to discuss the role of quality institutions and services for the sustainable and inclusive industrialization of Africa.

The discussion took place in the framework of the UNIDO–African Union joint celebration of Africa Industrialization Week 2020 on the theme, “Inclusive and sustainable industrialization in the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and COVID-19 era”. It also represented a follow-up to the International Quality Infrastructure Forum held in April 2019 in Brussels, which focused on the contribution of Quality Infrastructure (QI) to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to implement the AfCFTA.

The session was moderated by Patrick Gilabert, Head of the UNIDO Liaison Office in Brussels, and introduced by Bernardo Calzadilla-Sarmiento,Managing Director of UNIDO Directorate of Digitalization, Technology and Agri-Business, at UNIDO headquarters.  Calzadilla-Sarmiento stated that standards and quality for the AfCFTA, strong partnerships, and investments, were key to ensure inclusive and sustainable industrial development in Africa and achieve the SDGs for people, planet and prosperity. He also highlighted that “digitalization will be an integral part of the new normal”.

The keynote speech was delivered by Elsie Meintjies, Chief Technical Adviser for the UNIDO South Africa office, who presented case studies in the South African region. For her, “it is clear that we are facing challenges, but also opportunities to uniquely position ourselves in the world”. COVID-19 is, in her view, “the catalyst for South African technical infrastructure to take a quantum leap to the next level of service for our industry and our citizens”. She also confirmed the role and significance of standards, conformity assessment, accreditation, and metrology in the economy of South Africa.

Antti Karhunen, Acting Head of Unit at DG DEVCO, presented the European Union (EU) common response to the pandemic, called “Team Europe”, which will support Africa with a recovery package of 3.8 billion €.From an EU perspective, improvements in quality infrastructure and standards harmonization in Africa, together with investment promotion, private sector support (especially SMEs), and value chain diversification, are seen as great opportunities for Africa to emerge as a strong international trading partner. Karhunen recognizedthe need to build international partnerships, based on mutual interests and shared values to “build back better” and aim for a green, digital, and resilient recovery. He concluded by acknowledging that DEVCO was looking forward to continuing the excellent cooperation with international partners such as UNIDO and the Organisation of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS).

Escipión Joaquín Oliveira Gómez, Assistant Secretary General of the OACPS in Brussels, warned that the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted all economic and social processes. Value chains are being put in a very difficult position, hence the time for a paradigm shift towards more competitiveness based on “value propositions”. He said the guiding principles for OACPS to successfully tackle the COVID-19 pandemic are clear: recognize that it is not a crisis that can be tackled by one continent, region, country or sector alone; foster public-private sector dialogue and cooperation at all levels; promote national consumption of locally produced goods and services; assist vulnerable groups such as youth and women via special programs; take advantage of the crisis to promote the use of “leapfrog” technologies by MSMEs.

Eve Christine Gadzikwa, past President of the African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO), recognized that we live through times that are both exciting, where the concept Made in Africa is becoming more and more a reality, and challenging. For her, the critical elements to unlock value from the continent are the participation of SMEs and the contribution of women and youth. Obvious gaps are also access to information, logistics facilitation, intellectual property rights, payment options, and data storage. Even more importantly, she believes the mindset of the private sector has to change and become one of productivity, competitiveness, sustainable growth, market penetration and recognition of the value of the digital economy.

Dorsaf Labidi explained how the African Development Bank (AfDB) has contributed to the global efforts against the crisis. She mentioned the quick response mechanism put in place through loans amounting to 10 billion dollars. These budgetary measures for governments and private sector intend to mitigate the direct impacts of COVID-19. However, they should also be complemented by capacity-building measures and technical assistance in order to anticipate the needs for the economic recovery and future shocks.

Papa Demba Thiam, economist and industrial development expert, argued that shared growth with wealth distribution can only take place through value chains with value addition. In the AfCFTA context, quality standards, metrology, and testing truly matter. He suggested to focus on the strengths of the continent to support industrialization and to follow a more integrated approach through minimum integrated trade expansion platforms and operational services.

Ron Josias, Chair of the African Accreditation Cooperation (AFRAC), shared his view regarding the impact of COVID-19 on accreditation corporations responsible for evaluating and establishing regional arrangements for accreditation bodies on the continent. Challenges occurred in two main ways: people and processes. One the one hand, social distancing changed the way communication, trainings, and administrative management usually worked. On the other hand, preventing laboratory visits and the verification of technical competences proved to challenge accreditation bodies to witness the quality of processes. In this context, smart technologies became key. Despite these challenges, his view is that the crisis introduced new grounds for innovation as it “made us think in different ways”.

To conclude the webinar, speakers were invited to share their views on how they see the future of quality and standards. In a nutshell, key take-aways showed a common enthusiasm regarding the prospect of internationally accepted Made in Africa products, and a call for change in mindset that ensures consumers believe and trust in the quality of African products.

Panellists also agreed that collaboration was more than ever needed and especially through public-private partnerships. Joint efforts are required to ensure that pan-African quality infrastructure works, that concrete steps for the intra-African and South-South cooperation in regard to industrial development are made, and that integration is reinforced between all institutions.

Other concluding remarks urged the need for investments, capacity-building, digitalization of QI (especially data security, confidentiality and connectivity) and for taking more holistic approaches by working at regional level.

The discussion led to the conclusion that it is high time for a paradigm shift. Africa and key partners should build on the social and economic disruptions related to COVID-19, the opportunities offered by the momentum of AfCFTA, and the innovations brought by digital transformations. Looking ahead, quality and standards will remain cornerstones of competitiveness and essential services for resilient, inclusive, and sustainable industrialization in Africa “to build back better”.

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Africa Today

CAR: Displacement reaches 120,000 amid worsening election violence

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Poll workers carry ballot boxes during the 27 December 2020 presidential elections in the Central African Republic. MINUSCA/Leonel Grothe

“Worsening” election violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has forced 120,000 people from their homes, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Friday. 

In an appeal for an immediate end to all bloodshed – which has included deadly clashes with UN peacekeepers – UNHCR also said that mass displacement has continued outside the country since the 27 December Presidential poll, reversing a trend of people returning to CAR in recent years. 

“What is clear is the situation has evolved, it has worsened, we have seen that the number of refugees has doubled in just one week”, said spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov, during a scheduled press briefing in Geneva. 

Despite attempts by rebel groups to obstruct presidential and legislative elections, on 27 December, nearly two million Central Africans successfully cast their votes. 

UNHCR and partners in CAR “are gathering reports of abuses by armed groups, including of sexual violence, attacks on voters and pillaging”, Mr. Cheshirkov continued, underscoring the agency’s call “for an immediate return of all parties to meaningful dialogue and progress towards peace”. 

“We were reporting 30,000 refugees last Friday, today it’s already 60,000, and much of that is the increase we’ve seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This is coming with reports of intensified violence, people are being forced to move from their home and the situation has not calmed down for the moment.” 

‘Fear and dread’ 

Echoing concerns for the deteriorating situation, the UN-appointed independent rights expert for CAR called on Friday for the arrest and prosecution of all those “who continue to fuel violence” there. 

Because of them, the country’s people live in “fear and dread”, said Yao Agbetse, before deploring the fact that Central Africans “were unable to exercise their right to vote and that many were victims of torture or ill-treatment and death threats for exercising their right to vote in the first round of elections”.  

Calling out the so-called Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), Mr Agbetse alleged that the group  had “obstructed the country’s electoral campaign in December, prevented the deployment of election materials, disrupted the mobilisation of voters to carry out their democratic right and burned polling stations”. 

The CPC had also recruited children for its work, the rights expert maintained, “a crime under international law”. 

Several localities were targeted, including Kaga Bandoro, Bossangoa, Batangafo, Bozoum, Bocaranga, Koui, Carnot “and other locations in the centre, west, and east of the country”, along with the capital, Bangui on 13 January, said the rights expert, who reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.   

In his statement, Mr Agbetse noted that CAR’s “already fragile humanitarian situation” had worsened, with “more than half of the population in vital need of humanitarian assistance”.  

Prices soaring 

The premises of some humanitarian organisations had been ransacked, he added, while basic necessities “are becoming scarcer and their prices are soaring in Bangui because of insecurity on the supply routes to the capital”. 

Today, schools and training centres are closed outside the capital “and pastoralists and farmers can no longer carry out their activities because of insecurity and fear. Ultimately, food insecurity and extreme poverty are likely to worsen,” Mr. Agbetse said. 

10,000 cross in just 24 hours 

On Wednesday alone, 10,000 people crossed the Ubangui river that separates the two countries, UNHCR’s Mr. Cheshirkov said. 

He added that in addition to the 50,000 refugees in DRC, another 9,000 have reached Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of Congo in the past month. 

In an appeal for funds, the spokesperson said the inaccessible terrain and poor infrastructure along the Ubangui river where people have sheltered, has complicated aid access. 

“UNHCR was already seeking $151.5 million this year to respond to the CAR situation. The needs of the recently displaced Central Africans are mounting, and we will soon face a substantial funding shortfall,” Mr. Cheshirkov explained 

Inside the Central African Republic, another 58,000 people remain displaced.

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Ethiopia: Safe access and swift action needed for refugees in Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

The head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday expressed his deep concern over the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including its impact on Eritrean refugees hosted there. 

The conflict between the Ethiopian Government and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, when the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive after rebels attacked a federal army base. Government forces reported that the region had been secured at the end of November, but TPLF resistance has continued amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses. 

Despite some positive developments in accessing and assisting vulnerable populations, since the start of the Government operation, UNHCR’s repeated requests to access the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps have gone unanswered. 

“I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “They have been without any aid for many weeks”.  

UNHCR continues to receive many reliable reports and first-hand accounts of ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human rights abuses, such as killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea, said Mr. Grandi. 

Moreover, the agency has learned of additional military incursions over the last 10 days that are consistent with open-source satellite imagery showing new fires and other fresh signs of destruction at the two camps.  

“These are concrete indications of major violations of international law”, the High Commissioner spelled out. 

Doubly distressed 

Ethiopia has long given refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution.  

The federal Government has provided assurances of measures are to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians.  

“I have impressed upon the Ethiopian leadership, the urgency of ensuring the protection of refugees, preventing forced return and keeping refugee camps safe from attacks and other threats from armed actors”, said Mr. Grandi.  

Equally distressing, he said, is that UNHCR teams have been unable to assist the thousands of Eritrean refugees who continue to flee the camps in search of safety and support.  

“Refugees arriving on foot to Shire town in Tigray are emaciated, begging for aid that is not available”, recounted the High Commissioner.  

Against the backdrop that refugees who had reached Addis Ababa are being returned to Tigray, some against their will, he reiterated the UN-wide call for “full and unimpeded access” to explore “all options to safely provide desperately needed assistance”. 

Unwavering commitment 

In line with the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality, UNHCR stands committed to work with the Ethiopian Government in protecting and assisting those forced to flee.  

“We remain available to seek solutions – together – to the current humanitarian problems in a spirit of collaboration and constructive partnership”, said the UNHCR chief. “Safe access and swift action are needed now to save thousands of lives at risk”.

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Insecurity and bureaucracy hampering aid to Ethiopia’s Tigray region

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photo: UNFPA/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Nearly three months after the start of conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, hundreds of thousands of people have yet to receive assistance, the United Nations reported on Wednesday, citing information from its humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA.

“Humanitarian assistance continues to be constrained by the lack of full, and safe, unhindered access to Tigray, caused by both insecurity and bureaucratic delays”, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists

“The UN and its humanitarian partners in Ethiopia urgently call on all parties to allow the immediate safe passage of humanitarian personnel and their supplies to the Tigray Region to be able to reach all people who desperately need assistance.” 

Over two million in need 

Mr. Dujarric said the UN continues to receive alarming reports of civilians being injured and killed in rural areas in Tigray, as well as of violations against civilians, though verification remains a challenge.  

“Aid workers have been able to deliver assistance in some areas, mainly in cities, where access has been granted by the authorities. However, the number of people reached is extremely low compared to the 2.3 million people we estimate are in need of life-saving assistance”, he said. 

The situation is particularly critical for newly displaced people and refugees, especially those who were living in two camps that remain inaccessible, according to OCHA

Humanitarians further warn that the majority of the 270,000 people receiving benefits through the Government’s Safety Net Programme have also been without assistance as banks in most rural areas have been closed since before the crisis began. 

“These are extremely vulnerable people who rely on monthly cash transfers to meet their basic needs,” said Mr. Dujarric.

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