Room for optimism on Africa, the "hopeful" continent

Climate expert Fatima Denton from the Economic Commission for Africa will say it's time for more optimism on Africa and climate change at an IIED lecture to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Barbara Ward's birthday.

Camilla Toulmin's picture
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21 October 2014

Images such as this of a culvert constructed to allow villagers to cross the River Mahenya in Kenya, but which proves insufficient at times of extreme rainfall, are often used to tell the story of climate change in Africa. But Fatima Denton will challenge that narrative in her Barbara Ward Lecture (Photo: Robin Wyatt,

Ward, IIED's founder, said: "We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do."

Born in 1914, her life spanned an extraordinary period of growth and change. The year was, of course, also the beginning of World War One. One hundred years on, we face similar challenges, including rising nationalist tensions around the world, which we urgently need to defuse.

There were 1.8 billion people in the world in 1914, compared to 7.2 billion today. It was just the start of the oil age. Most of the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere had not yet been generated, and it was before most of the deforestation, land degradation and marine pollution that now scars our planet.

However, there has also been a lot of progress, with many rivers cleaned up, and urban air quality in big European cities much better than when so many people relied on coal. Equally, the last century has seen huge increases in incomes and welfare, life expectancy, food security and health.

Barbara Ward's youth and early adulthood were marked by two world wars, with the upheaval, loss and disruption that each provoked. But cataclysmic conflict can also have a silver lining, as outlined by French economist Thomas Piketty in his recent book "Capital in the 21st century". He argues that huge damage to assets and private wealth during the war years helped rebalance increasingly skewed levels of inequality.

The upheaval also opened up much better opportunities for women to take on more significant roles. At the start of World War Two, Barbara Ward was taken on by The Economist magazine, where she flourished and rose to foreign editor. It benefited greatly from her well-informed and lively writing style.

Every couple of years, IIED asks a remarkable woman to give a lecture in memory of Barbara. We started in 2006 with Mary Robinson, who spoke on climate change and justice. Lindiwe Sisulu, the then South African Housing Minister, spoke in 2008 on ways to house the urban poor through innovative partnerships with slum dwellers.

Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for Climate Action, talked in 2010 about the challenges of climate politics following the Copenhagen climate summit (COP15). Then Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, reminded us in 2012 of the urgent need for actions to adapt to and limit the magnitude of long-term climate change.

Like Barbara Ward, they are all remarkable leaders, speaking on the major issues of the day. Their great intellect, combined with a strong commitment to achieve human progress, and their ability to influence key people and debates, can help make a difference.

This year, we're particularly happy that Fatima Denton, the director of the Special Initiatives Division and leader of the African Climate Policy Centre of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), will give the centenary Barbara Ward Lecture. She will speak on "Rewriting the climate change narrative – Africa", the "hopeful" continent on Thursday, 20 November, at The British Library, London.

Nine out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. However, this growth is generating few jobs and comes at a high environmental and social cost. Climate change may also hit African economies and people very heavily, unless infrastructure, institutions and investments become more climate resilient.

Over the next 100 years, there will no doubt be enormous changes – possibly nowhere more so than in Africa. The continent is likely to see continued high population growth, from the current 1.1 billion, to 2 billion by 2050, and more than 3 billion in 2100.

But there are also huge resources to match such growth, and much knowledge and potential on the continent. Denton thinks it's time we told the real story about Africa and climate change by making the narrative shift from 'dismal continent' to 'Afro-optimism'. She will discuss how Africa can use climate change as a business opportunity to transform key sectors, such as agriculture, energy and water, and secure livelihoods.

But good governance is key to making this happen, as argued by Mo Ibrahim. Better governance depends on great leadership. Judging by the ethics, fearless intellect and powerful vision of our Barbara Ward lecturers to date, a few more women at the top of government in Africa might just make all the difference,

Camilla Toulmin ( is director of IIED.

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