Africa’s continued economic success relies on all sectors of society, including the private sector, working together to reduce the high number of conflicts on the continent and to mitigate their impact.

High levels of economic growth and demographic changes in some African countries are creating new opportunities for global companies and local businesses alike; the creativity of entrepreneurs is helping to create more dynamic economies across the continent. And a youth bulge combined with higher rates of school and college attendance are leading to a better-educated workforce and growing consumer markets.

Despite these significant changes, millions of Africans continue to live in poverty, lacking access to basic healthcare. They are vulnerable to climate shocks and price volatility, leading to food and nutrition insecurity. A major cause of this is conflict, which is a serious obstacle to long-term stability and development for Africa’s people, its institutions and its businesses.

Two recent examples are the 10 million people of South Sudan – a country which should have been moving on from conflict and poverty to economic development – and the resource-rich Central African Republic, which could be an engine for regional economic growth. Both are in the grip of a major conflict. Children, women and men are dying, families and communities are being uprooted, and South Sudan and the Central African Republic are losing the fragile development gains they have made.

The humanitarian and economic costs of conflict are significant. The World Bank puts the annual global cost at $100 billion; the African Development Bank estimates that on average, states affected by conflict and fragility have missed out on half their potential GDP since 1980.

Countries in conflict suffer a rapid decline in cross-border trade and do not attract foreign investment. They often suffer extreme devaluation of their currencies. Their infrastructure is destroyed or damaged; hospitals and schools may be used as camps for displaced people; children miss out on years of education.

Conflict also destroys the fabric of society and can allow crime to flourish, including gender-based violence and trafficking in people and narcotics. It diverts investment from economic and social development to military purposes. The long-term psycho-social effects of conflict are clearly significant but difficult to quantify. The impact on children is particularly severe, leading in some countries to a “lost generation”.

Avoiding conflict, mitigating its effects and preventing its recurrence are clearly a prerequisite for economic growth. But how can this be achieved? And what role can the private sector play?

Governments, state and regional institutions, and community-based organizations, all have a part to play in preventing conflict and reducing its effects. The private sector has a particular interest in driving change, building resilience and protecting fragile development gains. The private sector in Africa should be playing a leading role in helping to address the high rates of poverty and unemployment that underpin economic and social fragility and vulnerability. Investment in people, in training and education, is an investment in stability, growth and profitability.

Just as business is driving Africa’s growth, business can take a lead in supporting investment in social development and resilience within countries and communities.

This is already happening in Sierra Leone, where mining companies have joined forces with the UN Development Programme to provide graduates with training and a stipend. The South African Development Community is working with agricultural businesses to promote entrepreneurship, reduce corruption and engage with people in low-income groups. In Nigeria, a presidential committee made up of the private sector has raised $5 million to help people affected by the state of emergency in the country’s north-east.

The United Nations is continuing to put new emphasis on conflict prevention, mediation, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and supporting democratic transitions. The private sector can support these efforts. Entry points for cooperation include the UN Development Programme’s Business Call to Action and the Global Compact.

Working together, we can end the terrible waste of human resources and potential caused by conflict on the African continent.

Author: Valerie Amos is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. She is participating in the World Economic Forum on Africa 2014 in Abuja, Nigeria.

Image: South Sudanese fleeing an attack on the South Sudanese town of Rank, wait with their belongings after arriving at a border gate in Joda, along the Sudanese border April 19, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah 

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