Each year, Africa is gathering in New York on the occasion of the Africa Week. Each year, the NEPAD presents its various achievements for the past 12 months to its numerous partners from all over the world. It is then timely that this year Africa Week will celebrate new partnerships. One inevitably thinks of the new partners Africa has found in what is called the South — even if most of these countries don’t own any square mile of land in the Southern hemisphere.
To be fair, partnerships with countries outside the West have existed for a very long time. But it is a fact that in the modern period, let’s say the 20th century, the colonial era has prevented any other nation’s influence or relationship to Africa. We Africans had to wait for the decolonization to observe a real change in our relationship to the world.
Some countries were quick at this time to affirm their friendship. Among them, China was one of the newer players. The newly found interest in Africa translated in what has been called “stadium diplomacy”, mainly designed at gaining diplomatic support for its recognition at the UN. I don’t think it unfair to say it did not translate into a truly mutually beneficial relationship.
Sadly, at the time, Africa was little more than a strategic playground for foreign powers absorbed in the cold war. Non-aligned countries found it hard promoting a third way. This was then extremely good news for Africa that this whole system finally fell apart in the early 90’s. But Africa as a continent was not close to achieve its real independence.
This is because one needs to diversify their commercial partners and talk in one voice to gain true political independence. The creation of the African Union in 2001 allowed Africa to talk in one voice and find a more solid place in the concert of nations. At the same period it embarked on a path to prosperity, even if tortuous at times. Then Chinese interest in Africa translated in much more useful infrastructure thanks to a very palatable $200 billion bilateral trade per year.
New partners include India, with whom Africa trades at an all time high of $72 billion, Brazil, the Gulf countries, Turkey… In other words, we managed to build business and political relationships on an equal footing with countries from all over the world. Older partners such as Europe, the United-States or Japan have adjusted to this new context. Foreign direct investment and corporate relationships today dwarf aid channels. I believe it is a good sign of Africa’s credibility on the world stage.
These new partnerships have also had the expected and desirable side effect of allowing the savviest African countries to foster competition and extract better deals for its resources as well as choosing its partners in, say, the building of infrastructures. Today, Brazilian and French construction companies compete for mega projects. This can only benefit Africa and its people.
What is next for Africa in this multi polar world? First, we need to ensure we talk in one voice to other giant countries. Don’t forget that India and China are each as populous as Africa. Brazil is 200 million strong, more than any African country on its own. Hence the necessity for the continent to function more and more as one entity, at least at the economic level, for instance by offering outside powers access to a single market with unified norms, or by talking in one voice to its bigger partners.
One other huge topic that cannot be overlooked is how this situation will help to foster a true African entrepreneurial spirit. It is a good thing that foreign investment is pouring into Africa and that the risk perception is improving. It would be better still if a wave of African champions could emerge from this economic trend and that these companies could benefit from the investment needs of the continent. For this the states must step in with better education, better rules for doing business, better infrastructure. This requires a change of mindset.
Because for all the much-hyped economic growth there has been in Africa during the past 20 years, our continent is still home to 400 million people living below the poverty line. And its share in the global trade is no more than 3%. Globalization is not a choice; it is a force that we have to control in the best of our ability. The world is going through turbulent times and the next ten years are going to decide who benefits from the next ascending winds from the globalization. If Africa is to be among the winners, it must learn from its partners and cultivate its own industrialization by taking advantage of its regional markets.