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By Peter Heinlein
Addis Ababa
02 February 2009

The World Bank is predicting growth rates in Africa in 2009 could fall to half what they have been in the past few years.

World Bank Vice President for Africa Obi Ezekwesili, attending the African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, says, unless wealthy countries help quickly, the financial downturn spreading across the globe could ruin Africa's long spell of promising economic growth.

"Remember that this continent, until a decade ago, was growing at a negative rate of growth on the average. At most it would grow at two percent," Ezekwesili said. "In the last decade or so, this same continent was growing at a rate of 5.8 percent."

Ezekwesili says the downturn is likely to dry up the important private-sector investments that have seen huge advances in telecommunications infrastructure that have led Africa's impressive economic performance.

"Once the enabling environment for the private sector to operate, deregulation, happened in the telecommunications sector, the private sector turned out, and today they are really cleaning up, big time," added Ezekwesili. "So it's evident the market has been a source of good outcome for the continent."

Ezekwesili says the World Bank is urging the United States and other developed countries not to turn inward at this time of economic uncertainty. He wants them to start a vulnerability fund to ensure more resources are available to help African countries keep developing the infrastructure they need to sustain economic growth.

"What we have seen is that, with adequate infrastructure, productivity can improve by 40 percent on the continent," Ezekwesili said. "With adequate infrastructure, the continent can add two percent growth to its current growth estimates."

Ezekwesili says it is important that market-oriented African countries receive help to ensure they do not abandon the reforms they have embraced, just as they were beginning to pull people out of poverty. She says concerned African leaders should be reassured that, in her words, "The idea that the market has failed is not right," and despite the atmosphere of uncertainty, she says they must continue policies that foster economic growth.

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