Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans


Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

“Africa’s problems are not solved only by money”

The world is changing, and Africa along with it. However, there are differing opinions about the direction. Some see poor governance, corruption and conflicts as obstacles to development. The more optimistic say that rapid economic growth will raise Africa from dependency on aid already in the near future. Heikki Tuunanen, who is transferring to the Board of Directors of the African Development Bank in July 2013, thinks that the truth lies somewhere in-between.

“It is frequently asked whether now is Africa’s turn. Turns aren’t given out, they’re taken. Development depends on Africans themselves,” says Tuunanen.

At the same time he points out that we cannot speak about Africa as a uniform area. Africa is a continent with more than a billion inhabitants, 54 states and huge differences.

“All ‘How is Africa doing?’ type questions dealing with economic growth in Africa are posed incorrectly. Good news, bad news, and everything in between can be told.”

Are natural resources a blessing or a curse?

Tuunanen emphasises that money itself is not the solution even in the poor countries of Africa. Money alone does not address the bottlenecks of development.

“The problem is not that African countries are poor, the problem is the causes of poverty,” Tuunanen ponders. “Now a rush to Africa is under way. The big question is, how the countries’ governments are able to capitalise on the revenues from natural resources. Will the common people benefit from the investments?”

The glitter of Africa opens up on the scene

Heikki Tuunanen has had a long career working with development issues. He started as a lawyer under contract at the Department for Development Policy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 1975, and after a few years’ time he left for his first posting to Africa.

“In many ways I feel privileged with regard to my postings in Africa. I had the opportunity to serve, among others, at the Embassy of Finland in Nairobi in the 1980s, when Kenya was experiencing a period of development optimism. It was thought that now everything is going forward. The years in Kenya are one reason why I have spent twelve years in Africa.”

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Heikki Tuunanen believes Africa can be the next economic tiger (Photo:  Hanna ├Ľunap)One cannot get stuck on mistakes

The 1970s to 1990s, a period that was almost catastrophic economically and politically in Sub-Saharan Africa, has left its mark on Tuunanen. The childlike development optimism has fallen away. Yet the 63-year-old Deputy Director General of the Department for Africa and the Middle East has not become cynical.

“There is much talk about how investments in development have not always led to the desired results. No one denies that! It is all well and good to be critical about development assistance, but now it would be more relevant to consider what conclusions can be drawn from analyses and how to proceed from here.”

His coming position gives Tuunanen a ringside seat in this regard.

“I want to be involved in shaping the future. That’s why I wanted a position at the African Development Bank. Optimism – or rather, realism – has not disappeared anywhere.”

A strong advocate for Africans

The African Development Bank, founded in 1964, is strongly the continent’s own institution. Its primary objective is to reduce poverty, for instance by granting soft loans to the poorest countries in Africa. Recently, the Bank has strengthened its role as an expert. It collects, analyses, and also shapes thinking about development policy in African countries. The Bank’s shareholders alongside the countries of Africa are 24 countries located outside of Africa.

“For forty years I’ve been shouting advice and requirements to different countries. Now, for the first time I get to look at things, as it were, from the inside,” Tuunanen says. “If the African Development Bank is able to influence the way of thinking on the continent, and to bring about a sense of Africans’ getting things into shape, then its impact is many times greater than its assets. Much more effective than the entire donor community.”


Hanna Õunap