1 Apr 2014

Africa-Europe relations need to change with the times

By Sanoussi Bilal 

Europe has seen its role in Africa decrease, and it has missed good opportunities to benefit from Africa's boom

While ‘Old Europe' keeps struggling with anaemic growth and high unemployment, Africa has become a pre-emerging continent. In the footsteps of Asia, it has experienced sustained high economic growth, around 5%, over the past decade. This is why it is time to re-balance the Europe-Africa relations.

Africa continues to face major socio-economic challenges. It is plagued by persistent poverty and recurrent crisis: look at the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali or South Sudan, to mention just a few. This sad reality tends to dominate headlines in the West and still shape the general perception about Africa in Europe, including among policymakers. The story goes that Europe must help, if not save Africa, by sending troops into troubled places (at least from the French side) and spend billions in development assistance.

This common view can be misleading. Too often, it fails to recognise the diversity of situations between African countries. Germany is not Greece, and CAR is not South Africa. More importantly, it fails to identify the underlying dynamics for change within Africa. Africans are becoming more assertive and ambitious regarding their own capacity to transform their economies.

True, they have learnt over the years to master the donors' language, and keep calling for more aid when talking to Europe. But among themselves, laments about the ever-insufficient support from donors have been replaced by ambitious strategies to better mobilise their own domestic resources and engage in structural changes, harnessing high potentials from natural resources to industrialisation, infrastructure and institutional reforms. The ‘hopeful continent' will continue to be frustrated and disillusioned, as development milestones are missed and poverty and inequality are not being sufficiently and rapidly addressed. However, the dynamics have changed.

Outside Europe, the relationship of Africa with its partners is also evolving. Emerging economies are rapidly seizing the new opportunities offered by Africa's new dynamism. There is a lot of talk focused on China, but India, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Russia and many others are actively engaging African countries on a new basis, mixing economic, strategic and development objectives.

In this context, Europe has been slow in reshaping its relationship with Africa. With its geographical proximity and long-shared history, Europe is still the main trade and development partner of Africa. But it has partly failed to capitalise on its strengths, perhaps too assured of its traditional dominant position, believing in the superiority of its approach.

As a result, Europe has been perceived at times as arrogant and patronising, with its money, know-better attitude and higher moral ground. De facto, it has also seen its role decreased in Africa. This is not necessarily a bad thing if Africa is taking its destiny in its own hands and if new players are taking part of the burden to finance development.

However, in the process, Europe has missed some good opportunities to take part in a booming Africa. Europe should seek to combine better its values (in terms of universal human rights and good governance principles, inclusiveness, ownership, transparency, etc) and its interests (economic, political, geostrategic) when engaging with Africa. This means first publicly acknowledging European own interests in Africa, and reconciling these with its values and with African development ambitions, so as to generate the famous win-win outcomes all partners are looking for.

Some European countries have embarked on such strategies. The Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and France are actively engaging the private sector, starting with their own domestic companies, to pursue development objectives in a way that the Dutch government characterises as “enlightened self-interest”. Similar approaches are slowly being developed in many other places, including at the EU level. Private-sector investment and finance is at last recognised as a potentially key driver and instrument for inclusive and sustainable development.

This evolution does raise suspicion among some African policymakers and civil-society organisations. Managing expectations and diversity of objectives will remain a delicate balancing act.

How to develop such win-win strategies, in a way that builds on explicit self-interest while focusing on strong developmental outcomes in line with African dynamics for transformation is the challenge Europe and Africa have to address. This means focusing more explicitly on economic dynamics and relations between the two continents, not only Africa. It also means a less technocratic approach and a greater engagement with the private sector and with civil-society actors, on both continents, at the national and regional levels.

It is unlikely that the forthcoming EU-Africa Summit in Brussels on 3-4 April will suffice to reshape the relationship between the two continents in that direction in a significant way. But one may hope it will be a first step in that direction.

Sanoussi Bilal is the head of the economic transformation and trade programme and senior executive at ECDPM.

This post originally appeared in European Voice

This is a guest post; views may not represent that of ECDPM

Photo courtesy of EEAS


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