Excerpts from a new Chatam House report with a strong call for a fresh approach to Africa from “the West”:
A strong diplomatic and trade engagement with Africa matters. Africa is the foundation of the global supply chain – a strategic source of almost 40 per cent of the raw materials, agriculture, fresh water and energy essential for global growth. Its rainforests play a central role in the planet’s climate. Its population of one billion are increasingly important consumers. Africa is strategically placed between time zones, continents and hemispheres. However, the overwhelmingly humanitarian interest of many Western countries and traditional partners has led to stereotyped perceptions of Africa in terms only of problems. These views are increasingly patronizing, recursive, out of touch, and a deterrent to serious business interest. Meanwhile the emerging economic powers of the G20 see Africa in terms of opportunities – as a place in which to invest, gain market share and win access to resources.
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Development assistance has played, and will continue to play, an important role for many African countries, but economic fortunes across the continent are now diverging. This makes it less meaningful to treat Africa as a single entity in international economic negotiations.
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Africa has never been in such a strong bargaining position in international affairs, with increasing numbers of suitors. However, African leadership is at present insufficient and the activism and vision that characterized the first few years of the twenty-first century are less in evidence now. This is dangerous because without strong, effective leadership the competition for Africa’s resources may degenerate into the kind of colonial exploitative scramble from which much of the continent has only recently begun to recover. Governance institutions in general – from national governments to regional bodies and the African Union itself – are stronger than they were, but they need to be far stronger still.
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Aid is a very necessary safety net, but it is not a springboard. It will ultimately deliver the development Africa needs only if it is used in support of private-sector-led growth and stability. Emerging economies are capitalizing on this. Western countries ought to benefit too; indeed it should be a strategic imperative for them. Yet thus far there is insufficient evidence that they recognize this. Most Western countries still enjoy a comparative, if diminishing, advantage over emerging powers in policy and academic understanding of Africa. Yet resources and expertise on Africa have been allowed to wither in Western governments, academia and the news media. The advantages many former colonial powers enjoyed in terms of expertise, trade links and cultural affinity are now far fewer than many policy-makers assume. Beneath the rhetoric of the importance of Africa, diplomatic and trade resources devoted to it are still being cut in many Western capitals, leading to a downward spiral of ignorance and thus marginalization in strategic awareness. Reversing this trend will require time and investment, but the rewards should be considerable. The financial crisis challenged Western claims about the superiority of the democratic and free market model. Western countries should welcome the opportunity to demonstrate the advantages, dynamism and resilience of their economies and governance systems, and export them to Africa for common benefit, in an increasingly mpetitive multipolar world.