Policy insight: Improving Australia’s relations with the African continent

Policy insight: Improving Australia’s relations with the African continent

How Canberra can lay the foundations for its 21st Century relations with Africa.

MANAGING THE COLONIAL ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

1. Australia should develop a comprehensive Africa engagement strategy in its forthcoming foreign policy White Paper to demonstrate its commitment to equal partnerships with the continent
2. Australia should consult African governments, academia and African diaspora communities in setting Australia’s Africa-specific foreign policy priorities
3. Australia’s foreign policy towards Africa should acknowledge the African Union’s Agenda 2063 framework and the African Development Bank’s strategic thrust
4. Australian governments should support African states in their pursuit of renewable energy development
5. Australia should assist the growth of Africa-focused research in Australia through the establishment of ongoing research programs and other collaborations with the continent

AUSTRALIA-AFRICA WEEK

In early September, industry, government, academia, and civil society in Australia celebrated the second anniversary of Australia-Africa Week (AAW), which has been built around the nucleus of the Africa Down Under (ADU) mining conference. The Western Australian government hosted the first AAW in September 2016 as part of an effort to both deepen and broaden engagement with the continent.

This year’s AAW saw the inclusion of African diaspora communities in the program alongside research forums and industry-focused events. The success of AAW demonstrates the importance of a whole-of-government approach to Africa engagement. Moreover, it is indicative of widespread cross-sectoral interest in Australia-Africa relations, including as they relate to the resources sector. This year’s AAW also highlighted several areas of improvement for future Australian engagement with Africa.

TRANSACTIONAL DIPLOMACY

Australia’s “traditional window into Africa” has been multilateral fora like the Commonwealth and the UN. Australia has only nine embassies for the continent’s 54 states, including the recently announced Moroccan post. Even then, this modest expansion is part of a domestic and global counter-terrorism drive that lacks a strong basis in country and region-specific knowledge and expertise. This dearth of knowledge is partly due to Africa’s absence from successive Australian governments’ foreign policy outlooks. Africa barely warranted a mention in the Howard government’s 1997 foreign policy White Paper though it did receive a more substantive mention in the most recent 2003 White Paper.

Despite growing investment in Africa—over 170 Australian mining companies have operations on the continent—successive Australian governments have viewed Africa as peripheral to the country’s core national interests. Moreover, Australia tends to periodically increase engagement with Africa when it is campaigning for strategic UN seats and needs to secure votes. Both iterations of Australia-Africa Week have coincided with Australia’s campaign for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and it is a concern that Africa will be forgotten once the campaign concludes and Australia no longer needs to court African votes.

Australia’s transactional approach to engagement with Africa risks being viewed with cynicism by African states and encouraging perceptions of Australia as a neo-colonial power. With African countries increasingly harmonising their foreign policies, this eventuality could result in lost opportunities for engagement with the continent. For example, Australia may not be able to find support among African states for strategic UN seats as it has in the past.

Australia should therefore develop a comprehensive Africa engagement strategy in its forthcoming White Paper to demonstrate its commitment to equal partnerships with the continent. Given decades without sustained engagement, and to enhance knowledge of the continent, Australia should assist the development of ethical Africa-focused research in Australia through the establishment of ongoing research and other collaborations with the continent, including in the social sciences. This can be achieved by supporting the establishment of an African Studies Centre in Western Australia, as recommended in the 1996 and 2011 Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s inquiries into Australia’s relations with the countries of southern Africa and Africa more broadly. Moreover, Australian governments should regularly consult African governments, academia and African diaspora communities in setting Australia’s Africa-specific foreign policy priorities.

UNSUSTAINABLE ECONOMIC TIES

During a keynote speech at the 2017 Australia Africa Week, the Senior Advisor of the President of the African Development Bank Group’s President, Professor Kevin Chika Urama, highlighted the need for African growth “that is socially equitable, economically productive, and environmentally sustainable” [emphasis in original]. He also stressed the need for an end to one-size-fits-all approaches to governance and economic development, and cautioned that trade liberalisation needs to be beneficial to Africa and to facilitate continental integration.

Professor Urama’s emphasis on environmentally sustainable growth and renewable energy solutions contrasts with the push for increased uranium exploitation in Africa by Australian companies. States such as Niger are attempting to diversify their economy and end dependence on uranium mining, which has not benefited the country to the extent its deposits would suggest; Niger is the world’s fourth largest uranium producer and uranium accounts for 70% of the country’s exports, but it contributes only 10% to GDP. Yet expansionist moves by Australian companies in Niger run counter to the country’s development priorities. This risks undermining Australia’s influence locally, which could become a trend across the region as African states increasingly emphasise environmentally sustainable and economically productive growth.

Australia’s narrow focus on developing mineral export opportunities could cause it to miss opportunities to engage in Africa’s green energy boom, particularly as states transition away from fossil fuels. Additionally, Australia may fail to take advantage of economic opportunities in the expanding non-mining sectors, which will receive more local government support as efforts to diversify continue. As the country with the highest concentration of mining companies with operations in Africa, Australia would be well positioned to support African states in their pursuit of renewable energy sources in order to maintain its strategic advantage with the continent.

NEXT STEPS – AFRICA RISING

At the July 2016 Assembly of African Union Heads of State and Government, member states agreed to place a 0.2% levy on all eligible goods imported into the continent to ensure it is capable of self-financing its peacebuilding efforts and development. The decision was also indicative of the determination of African states to achieve continental self-sufficiency. It is highly likely that an increasingly united Africa will continue to make strides in globally articulating common positions in its engagement with non-African partners. Such efforts will reinforce measures to achieve inclusive growth and sustainable development.

The Australian government’s engagement with the continent will need to shift with these changes. Failure to align Australia’s Africa engagement with the continent’s development priorities will undermine Australia’s position with a continent that is of increasing strategic, economic and diplomatic importance.