There are really only two narratives that the public hears about Africa. One is a story of suffering — that is, the Africa that is hungry, poor and at war. It is used to evoke compassion. The second narrative evokes fear: It’s the centuries-old motif that the black man will overrun Europe. This trope is again becoming more pervasive as the debate about migration rages on.
However, both provide a narrow view of African reality, reducing our neighboring continent to nothing more than its relationship with Europe. Is it any wonder solutions to Africa’s problems are equally narrow?
Many unnerved African politicians tell me: “You Europeans only want to talk to us about migration.” It is not that migration is irrelevant, but rather that African-European cooperation can and must do more than just curb the flow of migrants. Africa is important and its importance is growing. The continent is home to an enormous stockpile of natural resources, which the rest of the world has benefited from. Yet, it has only barely reaped the benefits of its own well-endowed land.
Economic players from outside the continent are also involved in corruption, not just African elites.
The African continent will also bear the brunt of global warming despite the causes of climate change coming from other continents. But Africa can also play a crucial role in mitigating the changes. With population growth across the 55 countries skyrocketing and half of all Africans under 18 years old, the continent has become an economic and social player that no one can ignore. By 2050 Africa’s population will double to 2.5 billion people, meaning 25 percent of the world’s population will be African, and only five percent European.
Giving Africa’s youth prospects is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. There is a power coming of age, one that must be reckoned with, for better or for worse. I deliberately say “power,” because I believe that this is the right strategic category to frame this global challenge; much in the same way we understand the rise of China or the digital transformation as new power dynamics in world politics.
In Germany, many of the people I talk to about Africa first respond with a sigh: “Oh Africa, nothing has been happening there for decades, and then this corruption…” Remarks about endemic corruption aren’t wrong, but the tone used matters. First, striking the wrong tone conceals the fact that economic players from outside the continent are also involved in corruption, not just African elites. Second, it hides a strategic inaction towards Africa; and third, it obscures our ability to see the undeniable progress made in many parts of the continent. No, it’s not all bad in Africa.
In the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, Mauritius, Africa’s highest-ranked country, is ahead of France. Botswana ranks higher than Poland and Namibia higher than Italy in Transparency International’s corruption index. No, this does not make the corruption seen in many African countries any better, but it does put things into perspective. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Good Governance Index notes that there have been clear improvements in democratization and the rule of law in Africa over the last decade, albeit at a slower pace during the last five years.
In a world of growing disorder, Europe has allies here.
But should we not also be concerned about the future of democracy in the West in the face of nascent authoritarianism and accusations of manipulation? Perhaps when we talk about African democracy we should do so with less self-righteousness, placing it instead in the broader context of what democracy means and how it can be maintained, here or elsewhere.
The fact is that the 55 states of the African Union (AU) chose development models based on democratic values, human rights and the rule of law. I view the current AU leadership as a great opportunity for continuity and predictability. Yes, there are African politicians and intellectuals who have clear strategic visions of where they want to take their country and their continent.
Unlike any other continent, the AU links its own strategy, Vision 2063, with the United Nations’ global framework: Agenda 2030 for sustainable development. Africa sees itself as part of a multilateral, cooperative world order with a strong UN. In a world of growing disorder, Europe has allies here.
Africa has a clear vision, a path defined for itself, but it will take time and come with learning curves. It is in European interests that Africa succeeds, so Europe should wait patiently, while at the same time ambitiously work towards a genuine partnership with the continent.
It can start with education development. Germany has a lot to offer with its dual vocational training system and applied sciences university. Why not launch a joint project where German industry promotes vocational training in Africa? Let’s give more young Africans the opportunity to live in Europe while learning, studying and doing research! Let’s not let the refugee debate keep us from creating educational prospects for African youth in Africa and in Europe.
Developing a modern immigration law would be an enormously important second step for Germany to gain peace and direction when it comes to migration policy. It would also signal that we can differentiate between asylum and migration, and that we aren’t burying our heads in the sand, rather demonstrating on our own terms how open we want to be.
Furthermore our economy with its strong industrial expertise is a natural partner to promote the diversification and the transformation of Africa’s economies. My wish is for the German economy to generate creative ways of integrating African locations into global value chains.
Germany must now show its true colors through bolder and more flexible use of financing and guarantee instruments. The goal is to not simply improve the promotion of exports, but to secure equity investments by small and medium-sized companies that create local jobs.
And lastly Europe must finally grasp that its destiny is linked with Africa. This requires review of agricultural, industrial and trade policies to see what really creates jobs on the continent. In order for African economies to process more of their raw materials themselves, for example, a temporary guard may be needed as the “infant industries” are established.
Africa's economic transformation will only succeed if it coincides with Europe’s own structural transformation.
There are obvious political and economic asymmetries between Europe and Africa. Rather than concealing them, we should use them productively. We can build stronger financial bridges between the aging, thrifty societies in the North and the young, investment-hungry societies in the South. We can make the asymmetries fruitful by relating our own ideas of growth to the growth urgently needed in Africa, i.e. giving enough ecological and economic space to allow a different way of doing business, allowing production and consumption in our country.
I am deeply convinced that this is not a renunciation scenario, but will reveal entirely new ways of achieving prosperity, which go beyond materialism and the ultimately destructive desire for “always more.” Why don’t we dare to envision a truly global social contract?
Let’s not deceive ourselves: The migratory movements seen in recent years are not a historical slip-up, but rather a harbinger of a new era in which the stark prosperity differences between countries is no longer accepted by the South’s troubled and growing youth. It is possible to open doors for Africa’s young people. However, the continent’s economic transformation will only succeed if it coincides with Europe’s own structural transformation.
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