West not looking at Africa as a business destination

An influential British think tank has warned the West that it will lose out to emerging nations unless it replaces its “humanitarian” approach to Africa with a more strategic focus on diplomatic and trade relations.

In a major report published on Thursday, the London-based Chatham House says the emerging economies of Asia, Latin America and Africa are finding commercial and political opportunities in Africa that are being overlooked by the continent’s traditional partners.

Chatham House is the name under which the Royal Institute of International Affairs operates.

The author of the report, Tom Cargill, Chatham House’s Africa programme assistant director, says countries such as the United Kingdom fail to engage seriously with Africa diplomatically, and rely too heavily on “aid policies that rarely deliver influence” and on “historical ties that are fading”.

He says the overwhelmingly humanitarian interest of many Western countries and traditional partners had led to stereotyped perceptions of Africa in terms only of problems.

“These views are increasingly patronising, recursive, out of touch, and a deterrent to serious business interest,” Cargill says. “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.”

Consumption boosts growth

Cargill says that there have been dramatic improvements and prospects in Africa since the end of the Cold War, when much of the continent was mired in conflict and declining growth levels.

“Governance and growth rates have improved to the point where Africa has been the fastest growing region of the world for some years. Inflation has dropped, fiscal policy has improved and investment returns have increased,” he says.

“Yet while conventional wisdom is that recent growth has been largely driven by higher commodity prices, there is much evidence that increased consumption has played a central role, driven by and further driving the emergence in many African countries of a more assertive middle class with disposable wealth and an appetite for consumer goods.”

Cargill says this is highly significant because it points to a more critical and robust relationship between governments and taxpaying citizens, helping cement good governance and pro-growth reforms.

“Africa seems increasingly to be the final frontier for economic globalisation; arguably it has already become the most politically globalised,” he says.

Cargill adds that although aid is still crucially important to millions in Africa, business has flourished in many countries in the past decade as stability has increased.

“Nearly all governments in Africa now have a greater sense of what they need to do to stimulate growth and are seeking the tools to do it,” Cargill says. “The financial crisis may have contributed to instability in those countries that have long suffered from it, but the continent as a whole is set to recover strongly as global growth returns.”

Developmental focus essential

Cargill says that while a strong diplomacy-led engagement is important, a separate and strong developmental focus is also critical.

“A purely or overwhelmingly diplomatic approach could bring back the kind of narrowly exploitative and dismissive approach that characterised the relations of some countries with Africa in the past, and which did not recognise the potential of strategic partnerships,” Cargill says.

“This is particularly important as more emerging economies become interested in strengthening their engagement across Africa, since they bring very different conceptions of what is acceptable business and diplomatic practice.” – AllAfrica