How can African countries capitalise on the current geopolitical changes?

African partnerships with new emerging economies

The once dominant influence of the West is diminishing and it will have to metamorphose a new relationship with Africa. India, China and new players have increased their engagement in Africa in rather dramatic ways, transforming Africa’s traditional trade and investment relations. The largest increases in FDI to Africa in recent years have come from the BRICS, targeting Africa’s natural resources, from oil in Angola, Algeria, Nigeria and Sudan to mining in Niger, Mauritania, Zambia and Liberia.

It is however, a very partial view of what is going on. There is significant diversification of investments. For example, India is investing in social services, textiles and medium-sized enterprises, as well as technology and China is investing heavily in Africa’s infrastructure and services. Ways of doing business have been revolutionised, accompanied by advances in technology.

This new paradigm of engagement reflects cooperation in which partners see themselves as peers in mutually beneficial relationships. Interest in Africa from a larger pool of partners is favourable to the continent and is creating choice. Africa in turn, is well positioned to be a more assertive player in the global arena and to capitalise on the different development models and comparative advantages offered by the array of partners. To benefit fully, Africa must strengthen its institutions, take the lead in negotiating, designing and implementing strategies with partners to leverage its comparative advantages as well as broker good deals. Africa must transform from being perceived as a price taker to a price maker.

The Africa-EU future

Europe and Africa have historical and geographical relationships. Europe has been more of a trade, development and investment partner while Africa has been a crucial source of hard and soft commodities for Europe, such as strategic metals and minerals and captive market. Having said this, perhaps the most successful area in its long partnership has been in the thematic area of peace and security.

The EU-Africa partnership over the last decade has evolved under the framework of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy from one that was criticised for being an unbalanced donor-recipient relationship to one that promised a profound change in its approach to Africa. In 2007, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy was premised on principles of equal participation and representation, as well as to treat Africa as one.

However, development and political cooperation between the two continents has not resulted in any fundamental transformation; instead the gap has only become wider. This can be attributed to factors such as dwindling development budgets that have been affected by the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis; in turn, the financial expectations under the Joint Strategy have not been delivered. The emergence of new economies rival Europe’s historic role and style of development aid cooperation in Africa. Several partnership agreements have since mushroomed, such as the Cotonou Agreement, fragmenting the strategy.

The fourth Africa-EU summit therefore comes at an opportune time for both continents to develop consensus on what they want and how to transform the Africa-EU relationship. In the new landscape of multi-polar partnerships, Africa needs a coherent strategy so that its development is not compromised by competition among potential partners. In doing so, mutual accountability, mechanisms of enforcement, mechanisms that foster compliance of multinational firms to international norms and standards should be indispensable features for the future partnerships. It is time for Africa to capitalise on the geopolitical changes but by driving and owning the process.

Carlos Lopes is executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The article was first published on his blog.