Continental shift? The EU-Africa Summit: opportunities and challenges

3 December 2007

Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, said he wanted the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon to herald a “fundamental change” in EU-Africa relations, forging an “innovative, global and balanced partnership”. Europe needs to change its habit of seeing Africa as a continent of “difficulties” and see it instead as a “new frontier”.

Globalisation and the “multipolarisation” of power have changed the world, and the ‘traditional’ and the ‘emerging’ economic powers are now looking to Africa, with its wealth of resources, to fuel their production needs. Africa has 10% of world oil reserves and is a “safer” producer than most other regions, and has more than 90% of world reserves of platinum, cobalt and chromium.

Africa must take advantage of this opportunity, and not let itself become the victim of the “curse of natural resources”, whereby outsiders use it for their own gains without Africa reaping any benefits.

The continent is also a theatre for global strategic challenges - such as Islamic terrorism, nuclear proliferation, illegal trafficking and ‘rogue’ states - and the scene of terrible poverty, with more than half of its population of 800 million living on less than one euro a day. It has suffered the worst effects of climate change and global warming, with extreme weather cycles bringing unprecedented flooding followed by severe drought. In future, this will result in millions of refugees fleeing from the effects of climate change.

The Commissioner said Africa was the scene of a new “great game” being played out by the great powers like the US, China, India and Brazil. China is now a major player in Africa, with bilateral trade standing at $50 billion annually, and will invest a further €20 billion in infrastructure over the next three years. For the US, Africa is a means to diversify its energy supplies, and the continent will soon be supplying 25% of American oil. Washington also views Africa as a frontline in its war on terror.

Commissioner Michel stressed that he was not criticising these countries’ approach to Africa, but rather illustrating that the EU is letting the memory of its colonial relationship prevent it being more “pro-active”. It should now stop “lagging behind”.

Africa is “on the move”

Africa is on the move and has “crossed the Rubicon”, both politically and economically, he said, with many states on the path to democracy after years of dictatorship. European businesses need to take a fresh look at the continent to see how they can take advantage of this new atmosphere.

Politically, Africa is on the way to becoming an international player, with the creation of the African Union giving it more political unity. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the AU’s economic counterpart, is promoting integrated socio-economic development, and encouraging more South-South partnerships with China, the Arab League and Latin America.

Economically, Africa is on the rise too: for the first time in more than 30 years, its GDP growth has topped 5% for the fourth successive year. However, while these are encouraging signs, one should not underestimate the fragility of this new dynamism.

The Commissioner warned that there is a danger that the “easy money” flowing to buy its abundant resources could be wasted on high-prestige but worthless projects, rather than being used to foster growth, diversify the economy and help cut poverty.

Furthermore, despite its current growth, Africa’s share of world trade has fallen from 5% in the 1980s to 2% in recent years. Africa should join with Europe to build a new economic structure, and Europe should overcome its “bad conscience” and become an equal trading partner.

Special relationship in need of an overhaul

Europe is both Africa’s biggest trading partner and the biggest importer of African agricultural produce. It accounts for 68% of Africa’s Foreign Direct Investment and has been the leading donor of Official Development Assistance (ODA) for more than 40 years.

However, the EU and its Member States are failing to take advantage of their “unique position” vis-á-vis Africa, said the Commissioner, and many Member States are continuing to behave in their old colonial ways. Despite an increase in African-EU financial flows since 1990, the EU’s share of Africa’s economic activities has dropped from 15% to 5% of the total.

‘Afro-pessimism’ is still far too prevalent in Europe, where Africa is regarded as “a problem”, or an object of European “charity”. Fortunately, Africans are becoming more assertive and demanding, criticising European countries and the EU for their over-cautious, backward-looking approach and for seeing Africa as their “personal reserve”.

Africans believe that Europe and Africa must forge a common destiny by laying the foundations for an objective alliance, so, in 2005, the Commission proposed its ‘Strategy for Africa’ to recast the African-European partnership.

Its first component is to renew the principles of the relationship, turning the page on the 1884 Congress of Berlin (that laid the rules of European powers’ scramble for Africa) for once and for all, changing the donor-recipient patterns.

Secondly, it stresses that development is not charity, but is based on developing mutual economic relations. Civil society, the social partners and private sector are involved in implementing this strategy, shifting the balance of power between Africa and Europe.

As part of this new relationship, both the EU and its Member States should build bilateral relationships with their African counterparts, between individual ministries such as trade or development.

The EU wants to forge a political partnership with Africa, so the two sides can take common positions at international meetings; for example pushing other countries towards more ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Thirdly, there will be a new approach to development. Aid is not an end in itself; only growth can produce wealth, reduce poverty and help achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, insisted the Commissioner. Rwanda and Tanzania are successful examples of countries that combine a clear, long-term national vision of equitable economic development with good governance and well-structured development aid.

The EU has agreed a target of spending 0.56% of Member States’ GNP on development aid by 2010 and 0.7% by 2015, with half of this extra €20 billion allocated for Africa. The Commission has mobilised Member States into better ‘donor governance’ to avoid a plethora of aid projects competing with each other in developing countries, and has drawn up a donors’ Code of Good Conduct.

For its part, African countries must improve their own governance, said Commissioner Michel, improving access to health, education and judicial services, and doing more to open up their markets, as this is the only way to meet people’s basic needs. With this in mind, the EU has put reforming governance at the heart of the 10th External Development Fund (EDF) programming exercise with its Africa, Caribbean and Pacific partners.

The Commissioner quoted Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who said development activities only bore fruit when Africa stopped doing what donors told it to do and told development partners what it needed.

The Lisbon Summit is an opportunity for Europe to reassess its relationship with Africa. If this fails, it will be a missed opportunity and the “conservatism” that views development as charity will triumph.