8 Oct 2013

Europe-Africa Partnership: still trying to fit into the little glass slipper?

by Iina Soiri. Once upon a time in an African desert I decided to go on strike. As a 20-something development activist I took many things for granted, such as people’s rights to decide their own affairs by choosing their own leaders.
But with a limited tool box at my disposal, I just could not figure out any other way to make it happen than to stop working. Because, after many prolonged discussions under a Namibian acacia tree the returnee women could not decide whom to elect to lead the cooperative they were planning to establish. Fair enough, as during apartheid regime they had never had a chance to vote. So they kept looking to me for advice. After all, I came from the North and represented the friendly generous people there. So, I decided to sit at home until they had made up their minds.

The Northern organization I was working for was not very happy about my illegal industrial action. They reminded me of the need for quick decisions as we were entrusted with and accountable for tax payers money. I responded by saying that in fact we were entrusted with Namibian women’s own future. Miraculously, the North left me in peace. The ladies came to pick me up a few days later and announced their elected chairperson. And since then the Green Namibia Community Cooperative has existed (almost) happily ever after. And I could tick the box in the project report that I had successfully harnessed ownership.

I remembered my illegal industrial action more than a decade later when guarding much bigger tax payers' money in Tanzania. We were spending long hours negotiating on performance assessment matrix – a tool to assess performance in aid relationship related to budget support. It was when the big words: ownership, accountability and mutual responsibility had already become a common mantra of the Northern and African relations after the Paris Agreement. Unlike the women born in exile and with little education in Northern Namibia, I was now working with senior civil servants with a Doctorate in Aid Management. 

That was the reality in many African countries those days: Northern development partners making aid fairy tale. It was so much empty talk and unreal intentions. Some aid critics have in fact compared the aid relationship with Hans Christensen’s fairy tale the Emperor’s New Clothes. Aid based on partnership is rather an illusion than real cooperation based on ownership, mutual respect and equal opportunities.
African governments believe having ownership on the aid resources and on the direction of their own agenda. And African partners making Northern development partners believe they were happy to comply with conditionalities linked to big aid money. After all, their state budgets depended upon that money. I often wanted us all to call a General Strike and re-boot the

But as in most fairy tales, a miracle happened. African economic growth and its governments’ increased assertiveness have created a whole new situation where aid is more and more irrelevant to many African state budgets. Mind you, I do believe that Northern aid has played a role in providing conditions for economic growth and better leadership – and can still act so. However, in the new situation, many African countries are less dependent on the traditional Northern (= European) aid pledges, due to their own domestic resource mobilization and because of the New Kids on The Block: The New East’s investment and South-South cooperation. So African development can finally stand on its own feet, and rid itself from old aid paradigm. Consequently, ownership can have a true meaning, not just be a box to tick in the aid project manual.

Again a happy ending? Not quite, as the Northern partners and especially EU seem to have got stuck in yet another fairy tale: Cinderella. Looking for his long lost beauty, the EU now behaves like the handsome prince searching for an innocent and obedient maiden to fit in to the little glass slipper she left behind. According to that narrative, Africa needs to be saved from its evil ugly stepmother that is enslaving the continent and alienating its ties with the old good fairy. In other words, EU still thinks it has the monopoly to give meaning to ownership and that only it possesses the knowledge on what is best for Africa.

The new Europe-Africa partnership agreement being discussed at the moment will be a real litmus test of the new global reality. How can future EU-Africa relations be based on a real ownership and genuine partnership and what would the relations be all about? Africa is no more willing to fit in to the shoes tailored solely by the North. So EU should be ready to face the real truth: Cinderella grew up.

For example the way EU has been force-feeding the Economic Partnership Agreements, EPAs, to Africa with double standards would rather illustrate the arrogant behaviour of the ugly stepsisters than someone trying to broker a true partnership. Partnership in essence also means compromises.

African governments and institutions of today want to write their own fairy tale and manufacture their own shoes to fit in. EU needs to start recognizing the heterogeneity of the African continent, its regions and societies and have strategies that fit for different situations. EU is at face-value promoting the formal features of democracy in the African continent: elections, human rights and good governance. Yet, there are exceptions to the rule whenever it suits the European intentions. As long as the African regimes are not openly too ugly or evil and the people are not too brutally repressed, EU is willing to make a deal. This is because EU’s own resource extraction, trade and security interests are at the core of its relations with Africa, however nicely packaged in the Human Rights and Good Governance wrapper. While Africa can now have more say on its own affairs and define its own interests and partners, Europe should also be bold enough to reveal its true intentions. In that way they could get real with genuine partnership.

In the real world, equal partners tolerate disagreements and are even prepared to fight for their rights. In the real world, there is no need for old paradigms and feelings of guilt or remorse. Let’s indeed hope the world is real in 2014, when EU-Africa Partnership Summit will be held. To tackle the common global challenges there is need for joint action; otherwise it is our common planet that will call in a General Strike.


This blog was originally posted here at Puzzled Boss Lady.

Iina Soiri is the director of NAI, the Nordic Africa Institute. Prior to her appointment, she worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland as a Senior Advisor on development policy. She is a modern nomad and Africa expert who  trekked from one coast to the other on the African continent for two decades.


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