Globalization is not simply a process that started in the last two decades or even the last two centuries. It has a history that stretches thousands of years and Africa has been at the heart of international trade for far longer than we imagine. From the trans-Saharan caravans and the triangular trade, from the colonial counters to the Coltan of the Kivu, the continent has lived at the pace of the different periods of globalization, without always being in a position to influence or control, let alone take advantage of, global transactions.
Whether one thinks globalization is a “good thing” or not, it is an essential element of the economic history of mankind. According to Amartya Sen, Nobel-Prize winning economist, globalization “has enriched the world scientifically and culturally, and benefited many people economically as well”. Those more skeptical about globalization associate it uniquely with free market policies and an increase in inequality levels. It is true that Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, has lagged behind other regions in the spread of the global economy, and the overwhelming majority of Africans have not benefited from the purported promises of global prosperity.
But globalization also encompasses the exchange of commerce, culture, ideas, information, people. Global networks have created opportunities for nations and communities to operate on a much larger scale worldwide. Previously disparate locations on the globe are now linked into extensive systems of communication, migration, trade and interconnections. This very phenomenon also makes it possible for emerging countries to strengthen their local and independent identities while working to be part of larger transnational alliances.
In this context, what are the questions that Africa needs to ask itself in order to propel itself to a more proactive actor in globalization?
Trade deals need to show that nations are open for business by putting people’s interests, not just corporate interests, at their heart. What must we put in place to resolve the tensions between democracy, the nation state and global economic integration?
A key feature of globalization is connectivity, as illustrated by the expansion of marine and terrestrial fibre optic cables. This offers unprecedented broadband infrastructure and opportunities to master the digital revolution. How will technologies, central to Africa’s economic and social lives, empower African populations?
Africa has the potential to develop a particular model of globalization. This model is the more pertinent in a world context coloured by the British vote to exit the European Union and the result of the recent US presidential election. The latter events are a symptom of popular disenchantment with globalization and a desire for the reactionary raising of national barriers. On the other hand, Africans continue to be outward-looking. In this context, the phenomenon of south-south migration constitutes an important capital for the continent. Can we redefine migration dynamics away from the binary brain drain / brain gain debate into one of holistic continental development?
Globalisation is not a zero-sum game. It is a two-way traffic involving a historical process of border crossings and hybridization and everyone should benefit from it. There is space yet for Africa, through a particular and renewed set of global transactions, to positively influence the direction that globalization will take in the future.