Embracing a New Transatlantic Narrative on Africa

BRUSSELS—It is only when certain conditions are met, when a certain speed is reached, that an airplane can safely take off. Economies often work in a similar fashion; with immense reserves of natural resources, a young workforce, and average annual growth of over 5 percent over the past decade, the conditions for Africa’s take-off are aligning. World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy declared in May that “Africa is the growth continent for the 21st century” but added that “the real challenge for Africa lies in sustaining the growth process, enabling it to reach its full potential and ensuring the growth is inclusive.”


Africa is diversifying, and African countries are seeking new opportunities and partners on, hopefully, more equal terms. The likes of China, Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey are already looking at this new frontier with interest, banking on Africa’s potential as the next source of global growth. Through commercial exchanges and investments, they have cemented their presence and influence. While Brazil now has over 30 diplomatic representations in Africa, it is estimated that China has more than 150 commercial attachés on the continent.

Many African countries have rightly embraced these new opportunities and partners, but their impact on local economies and societies should not be overstated. While in 2012, foreign direct investments in African countries from emerging economies outpaced those of developed countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France remained the continent’s main investors. Americans and Europeans are still key actors and often preferred partners in Africa’s development. Access to markets remains crucial, and both the EU’s Generalized Preference Scheme (GPS), and the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act bear renewed potential. Traditional donors are also adapting: the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has been advocating for public-private partnerships for local and indigenous development, indicating growing support for the promotion of investment for development. Given the increasing opportunities for new transformational partnerships, Americans and Europeans need to rethink their relations with African countries in order to take an active part in — and truly benefit from — Africa’s take-off.

In this respect, U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania in early July struck an encouraging tone. Obama’s focus on trade and investment, and his emphasis on African countries as partners rather than as aid recipients, offered Americans a different take on Africa. Strategically, it helped to reposition the continent as an indispensable partner in facing the challenges of the 21st century.

Developments in Africa are contributing to changing narratives about its future. In late May, the African Development Bank (AfDB) decided to re-establish its headquarters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, after ten years spent in Tunisia. This strong institutional signal, along with AfDB President Donald Kaberuka’s recognition of the achievement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in promoting peace and stability in the sub-region and the African Union (AU) summit on Pan-Africanism, attest to greater African ambitions and confidence. ECOWAS mediation played a central role in defusing the Malian crisis. Learning from the crisis, the AU is stepping up efforts to create an African force for rapid deployment, and as of mid-2013, 10 of the top 25 contributors to UN missions worldwide are African countries. But the rise of Africa will still require the continent’s leaders address the broader issue of relations between sub-regions, and common interactions with external partners.

Overcoming the challenge of sustainable and inclusive growth will also mean tapping Africa’s most important asset: its youth. A young, increasingly educated, and innovative generation is seeking to change traditional patterns of economic and social development. Obama’s town hall meeting on the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg drew attention to a forward-looking generation eager to overcome traditional barriers to peace and prosperity. It is no longer about what is possible, but about what is desirable. In Kenya and Senegal, urban culture is used to tackle violence and unemployment. Young Angolans in Luanda are rethinking their city and looking for ways to address congestion and pollution. Further north, a new generation of Nigerian authors is leading the re-emergence of African literature. And creative social entrepreneurs are reshaping societies in Ghana and South Africa. Across the continent, the “cheetah generation” — as named by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey — is defining a new paradigm for Africa’s relations with its partners, old and new.

Africa as a whole may not yet fly high and peacefully in the 21st century, but it has reached a point where a takeoff is inevitable. In a new era of global relations where Africans will play a major role, Americans and Europeans should make sure they are on board.

Madeleine Goerg is a program coordinator for the Wider Atlantic Program and Guillaume Xavier-Bender is the program officer for economics in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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