Conference 2016: Africa renegotiates its place in the world

Globalisation, a process involving the extension of capitalism to the entire planet, is a new phase in the integration of economic, financial, ecological and cultural phenomena, the stated goal of which is to abolish physical and regulatory boundaries. Globalisation is an ambivalent phenomenon that includes both the promise of more trade and international investment and greater risks of instability and marginalisation. This ambivalence is reflected in contrasting levels of economic performance on the world level in the past two decades. While developed and emerging countries have managed to profit from globalisation, less developed countries—particularly in Africa—have experienced a worsening of their imbalances, as a result of obstacles to their development. The marginalisation of these countries is illustrated by the meagre portion of worldwide investment they receive (1%).

Globalisation in its current form raises questions and sometimes fears. Does it really represent an opportunity for African countries to industrialise and open new horizons for themselves? Or is it, on the contrary, a source of irremediable marginalisation for a continent incapable of ridding itself of its current mode of insertion, which is based on the export of raw materials? Current reflections and proposals on Africa’s place and future in the world focus on the crowding-out effect that such a process could have, and on the need to dispel the spectre of marginalisation.

At the beginning of the 1960’s, the African continent accounted for 14% of world trade, though it had only 9% of the world’s population. In 2013, its participation in world trade fell sharply to 4%, while its demographic weight amounted to 14%. Over the past two decades, sub-Saharan Africa’s participation in world trade has been cut in half, while grain imports have been multiplied by three and total debt by twenty. The African continent is thus caught up in a downward spiral, the signs of which can be seen not just in the economic domain, but in the political, cultural and social domains as well.

Africa’s voice can barely be heard in debates on global issues. The continent is not party to major world decisions made by the United Nations, international financial organisations or world governance bodies such as the G7 or G20. Yet most of the decisions made in these circles have repercussions on the daily lives of African populations. Africa follows where others lead instead of deciding for itself, accepts things instead of reacting because it has little room to manoeuvre and, as a result, little negotiating power. Only major economic and political powers can stake a claim on the leadership and management of world affairs, and they do so in accordance with their own interests, as is the case in current negotiations on climate change.

The current situation may seem gloomy, but there is reason to be optimistic about the coming decades if Africans can only put themselves in a position to take advantage of the continent’s enormous economic and human potential and the progress that has been made in democratic governance and conflict reduction – despite the appearance of new threats to peace and security. In 2013, Africa’s growth outstripped the world economy: 4% compared to 3%, despite volatility, inequalities between countries and regions and poor distribution of the fruits of this growth – and trends in this area remain positive. Financial contributions from outside the continent – both foreign investments and transfers from migrants – have increased, along with fiscal revenue. Companies can be optimistic about key factors including technological progress, urbanisation and demographic change. Poverty is on the decline, income has increased; education and health systems are improving significantly, thus increasing Africa’s capacity to provide itself with the quality human resources it needs to compete with the rest of the world. Potential in terms of natural resources remains immense despite the ecological challenges inherent in using such resources: climate change, depletion of resources, access to energy.

Finally, the instability and political risks present in some regions should not blind us to progress made in the governance and democratisation of States and societies. Further, this progress is likely to be irreversible if African countries are fully aware of the risk of possible political and social upheaval and develop their capacity to anticipate and rebound from the resulting conflicts.

In this global context, Africa clearly faces an existential challenge: it must jockey into a favourable position in the current process of globalisation, and also affirm itself as a true actor on the world stage--an actor that plays a part in addressing shared challenges and stakes a claim on the continent’s legitimate rights to development and progress for its peoples. It is thus vital, at the beginning of the new half-century, to open debate on conditions for rebuilding relationships between Africa and the other continents and regions of the world. While resolutely facing the challenge of its insertion in globalisation, Africa must also make the internal structural changes needed to take advantage of a shared globalisation serving peace and sustainable development for all of humanity (I). Proposals emerging today plead in favour of new partnership mechanisms compatible with Africa’s rise to a position of greater responsibility in economic, political and cultural affairs. Thus it is important to rebuild world governance so global challenges can be addressed with greater legitimacy and efficiency (II). Finally, while strengthening a win-win partnership with the world’s countries and major regions, Africa must also strive to break out of its current state of dependency and make its voice heard. The continent must give itself the capacities it needs to be a full-fledged actor in globalisation and seize the new opportunities it provides (III).