How we can move from payers to players in our relation with Africa


Picture of Patrick Develtere
Patrick Develtere

Professor of International Development Cooperation at KU Leuven and former principal advisor at the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC)

As globalisation continues to rapidly shrink our world, the European Union’s strategic partners and competitors are deepening their links to the African continent. However, Europe is not standing idly by – Europe and Africa are also moving closer than ever. In this context, and after decades of close cooperation between the two continents, former Commission president Juncker announced a new Africa-EU Alliance for Sustainable Investments and Jobs in his 2018 State of the Union Address. His successor, President von der Leyen made her first out-of-continent mission to the seat of the African Union and capital of Ethiopia – Addis Ababa. It was more than a symbolic gesture.

We underestimate how much the Africa-EU relationship diverges from other regions’ approaches to Africa.

First, Africa and Europe have unique strategic interests due to their geographical proximity, historical and linguistic ties, and interconnected economies and societies.

Europe is the only continent that can initiate a ‘whole-of-society’ approach with Africa

Second, the scale of Europe’s engagement in Africa is unparalleled, not only in terms of development aid, but also in terms of trade and stock of direct foreign investment.

Third, the nature of Africa and Europe’s engagement has a much longer timescale. Because Africa and Europe’s past and futures are interlinked, they cannot afford to take a short-term approach to their relationship. Engagement is not done on a ‘hit-and-run’ or ‘quick-and-dirty’ basis.

Fourth, the relationship differs in scope, as Europe is the only continent that can initiate a ‘whole-of-society’ approach with Africa. Other countries limit themselves largely to a diplomatic-cum-commercial relationship.

Thus, aid is no longer the alpha and the omega of the Africa-EU relations

In this incipient whole-of-society approach, an ever-growing range of state and non-state actors of both continents are collaborating and co-creating development. Accordingly, the traditional vertical and unidirectional North-South approach is giving way to a horizontal, networked model in which various stakeholders share common challenges and goals.

Consequently, the donor-recipient approach is in the process of revision. Mutual interests as well as win-win operations are becoming more central. In this model, the focus is not on the weaknesses and the deficits encountered in Africa, but increasingly on the strengths and opportunities of all partners – allowing for a bidirectional and reciprocal partnership of equals.

Thus, aid is no longer the alpha and the omega of the Africa-EU relations, but rather it is part of a wider framework that also includes investments, exchanges, training, trade, digital interconnectedness, etc. The traditional development cooperation community thus becomes an enabler, a facilitator, and a vector that stimulates others to grasp the opportunities that Africa-EU cooperation and co-development provide.

With this new approach, the EU can truly differentiate its engagement with Africa from that of other actors

This implies of course that partners drop the risk-averse attitude that has characterised development cooperation for so long. Processes become increasingly interactive and iterative and the interaction is man-centred rather than plan-centred. The donor-recipient relation makes room for a mutually beneficial relationship not only between governments, but indeed between societies and economies more broadly.

With this new approach, which is large-scale, indefinite in time, and broad in scope, the EU can truly differentiate its engagement with Africa from that of other actors. It implies that a diversity of players beyond official development agencies and non-governmental development organisations can share control over Europe and Africa’s shared destiny. This includes the private sector, of course, but also social partners, academia, think tanks, the diaspora, farmers’ organisations, cultural organisations, civil society at large, museums, foundations, social and cooperative enterprises, start-ups, media, local authorities, etc.

The collaborations between these actors and their counterparts on both continents can be more than just transactional. The infusion of new forms of financial, social and cultural capital beyond a single commercial transaction or short-term project has the potential to energise the societies and economies on both sides of the Mediterranean, forging lasting bonds.

The whole-of-society approach can pave the way for a twin-continent approach

While already gradually becoming a reality on the ground, the whole-of-society approach is still in its infancy and will need time if it is to establish itself as a new paradigm. The mainstreaming of the whole-of-society approach faces several obstacles. On the side of the EU, the difficulty lies in the persistence of the perception of European actors as ‘donors’ rather than ‘partners,’ which creates an asymmetric relationship largely defined by wealth and interest. On the side of Africa, the difficulty resides in the continuation of a top-down mentality among some governments, which often overpowers the capacity of non-state actors to take leading roles, and can result in inefficiency in pursuing dialogue and objectives with their European counterparts.

Despite these caveats, the whole-of-society approach can pave the way for a twin-continent approach that transforms both payers and recipients into relevant players.

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