Africa and the G20 – Considerations for Building a Meaningful Partnership

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The true size of Africa

While it is noteworthy that the German G20 Presidency has made cooperation with “Africa” - a term used here for ease but not to imply that the continent is a homogenous entity - one of its priorities for its meeting this year, it is critical that this is not just a once off initiative. Sustained and meaningful cooperation with Africa cannot depend on the whims of successive G20 presidencies. If some of the most powerful twenty countries in the world are committed to building cooperation with Africa then the best way to do this is allowing Africans to set the agenda and to be at the table as an equal partner.

The recent T20 Africa Conference held in Johannesburg aimed to address just that; explore how best to build alliances and cooperation between the G20 and Africa on sustainable development.

Is the G20 right for Africa?

There are however a few critical observations we need to make about the G20 itself when considering alliances and cooperation with Africa.

Firstly, unlike the United Nations, the G20 is not an inclusive multilateral body. It is, in fact, a voluntary body comprised of, what was at its commencement, the twenty most powerful economies in the world, both developed and developing. It is important to note that the G20 does not include Least Developed Countries (LDC’s). Thirty-four out of the fifty-four countries in Africa are classified as LDC’s. A key question we need to ask is whether the G20 is the right forum to address the challenges facing the most vulnerable in Africa? On the other hand, economic, financial and other policies adopted by the G20 have a huge impact on the vulnerable and the poor. As one speaker at the T20 conference observed “it is better to be at the table than to be the on the menu”.

Secondly, the economic framework of the G20 has remained true to the neoliberal economic model prevailing today. There has been no real fundamental review of this model by G20 members (although neoliberalism has more recently come under a critical spotlight at the International Monetary Fund). It has to be emphasised that this economic model has in large part led to some of the key global crises we face today, namely poverty and inequality, climate change and conflicts. The burdens of these crises are most felt on the African continent.

Thirdly, although it is clear that the G20 is a powerful player in global politics and economics today and will in all likelihood remain so - even with the uncertainties of a Trump administration - the question is whether trying to make the G20 more inclusive by including regional representation, such as from Africa, will serve to undermine existing multilateral fora. The issue of global governance, its legitimacy, inclusivity and effectiveness therefore should take centre stage in these debates going forward.

Africa and the G20 – Quo Vadis?

There appears to have been overwhelming support for building cooperation with the G20 among the African think tanks attending the T20 Africa conference. Since we are likely to take the option of being “at the table rather than on the menu”, there are some considerations to offer:

1. Africa is not a country!

A speaker at the T20 Africa conference succinctly made the point that Africa is a vast and diverse continent and should not be treated as one country. This begs the need for a paradigm shift in the G20, especially from developed countries. The recognition of the diversity and complexities of the African region will hopefully result in solutions that are relevant and appropriate and informed by local, sub-regional and pan-African agendas.

2. Africans have to be equal partners at the table

The African continent has been viewed as a junior player in global development for too long. From colonial times, through independence, to today, this continent has suffered from deliberate underdevelopment and the exploitation of its resources, whilst being made a pawn in geopolitical strategies and a recipient of aid and “capacity-building”.

Africans are no longer sitting back and accepting this fate. Even though there are still massive political, economic, social, environmental and governance challenges, we have witnessed some African countries reach economic growth rates of more than 5 percent in recent years, there has been a growing democratisation with free and fair elections becoming the norm and at least some of the regional governance structures are stepping up to the leadership plate. It is time for those in the G20, particularly the “donor” countries, to move away from a paternalistic view of the continent, to acknowledge their role in the challenges facing Africa today and to respect African nations as equal partners at any table alongside the “powerful”. In his speech at the T20 Africa conference, the Parliamentary State Secretary for the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation, Thomas Silberhorn went a long way in acknowledging this by saying “the challenges we have in Africa is also a result of the lack of awareness of those in industrialised nations”. This next G20 meeting is an opportunity to concretely signal a shift in approach by getting Africa at the table based on its own agenda. The T20 Africa conference proposal for a joint “Code of Conduct” for the engagement between Africa and the G20 is welcomed in this regard.

3. African leadership

Patrick Hayford, former Director of the UN Office of the Special Advisor on Africa, summed up the challenge of African leadership at the T20 conference, “Africans must take intellectual leadership about Africa’s role in the globe and the global discourse on Africa, it needs to set its own agenda”.  This leadership should emanate from all spheres of society, and include political, business and citizen leadership. An Africa that wants to ascend in global affairs has to create space for the voice and meaningful contributions of its countries’ citizens. In an ever-changing world, with high levels of unpredictability, growing citizen distrust in public institutions and increasing conflicts, there is a gap that African countries can fill with solid, visionary and honest leadership.

4. Africa's development path

The biggest challenge facing African countries is how to achieve inclusive economic growth and development. Even though we are resource rich, the benefits of the extraction of these resources have not resulted in the improvement of the lives of citizens in many of these countries. African governments continue to believe that the way to get growth in their economies is to follow the same economic path that industrialised nations have followed. This is a mistake. Africa’s rise also coincides with a period in which there is a growing planetary emergency; where our ecological boundaries have been broken and climate change already wreaks havoc. While most African countries have historically not been responsible for this planetary crisis, it does however feel the burdens of its impacts; droughts, floods, land degradation, food, water and health insecurity etc. This will worsen as temperatures rise due to climate change.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and the Paris Agreement on climate change aim to address these challenges. The problem however is that these global agreements, while historic in their adoption and well meaning in their intent, will not solve the crises without also addressing the fundamental systemic and structural issues caused by a global hegemonic neoliberal system. It would be good to heed Albert Einstein’s advice “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.

This is where Africans can provide the most important intellectual leadership of our time. We need to develop alternative models for growth and development that leapfrogs our continent towards the visionary future captured in the 2030 SDGs:

We will seek to build strong economic foundations for all our countries. Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity. This will only be possible if wealth is shared and income inequality is addressed. We will work to build dynamic, sustainable, innovative and people-centred economies, promoting youth employment and women’s economic empowerment, in particular, and decent work for all. We will eradicate forced labour and human trafficking and end child labour in all its forms. All countries stand to benefit from having a healthy and well-educated workforce with the knowledge and skills needed for productive and fulfilling work and full participation in society. We will strengthen the productive capacities of least developed countries in all sectors, including through structural transformation. We will adopt policies which increase productive capacities, productivity and productive employment; financial inclusion; sustainable agriculture, pastoralist and fisheries development; sustainable industrial development; universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services; sustainable transport systems; and quality and resilient infrastructure.

The AU’s Agenda 2063 provides a useful starting point for reconstructing a new development model for Africa. But that needs to start now.

The Role of the T20 in building Africa’s cooperation with the G20

The T20 Africa conference was an important start to building what should become a sustained platform for engagement by Africans for future cooperation with the G20. While this first conference was convened as part of the German G20 presidency programme, it should not end there. African think tanks should now take ownership of this platform with support from partners.

To build meaningful and inclusive discourse, African think tanks should also ensure that they are convening these conversations at national and local levels with all sectors of African society. Inclusive, bottom up and connected engagement builds power and this will be necessary if we are to be equal partners at the G20.

In addition to this, as a next step it would be good to also convene a joined up conversation with other “20’s”, namely L20 (Labour), B20 (Business), C20 (Civil society), Y20 (Youth) etc. in Africa.

Africa is rising but it is fragile and faces many risks. When we prepare to sit at the table with the big ones it will be important to remember some African wisdom, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. Let us be prepared and not be trampled.