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Africa as a Global Test Case

Has the time for a new global approach to Africa finally arrived?

June 21, 2014

Credit: iprostocks -

Our image of Africa is distorted by clichés and our perception of Africa is still not that of an ordinary continent. There are many Africas — and diversity on the continent will continue to grow.

The success stories will increase in the years ahead — some calling it the emergence of African capitalism or even the “new Asia.” But other African countries may linger or fail.

Either way, the new Africa is interacting with the world. Today, there are more external players and more initiatives than ever, all trying to influence African development.

For some, this is equivalent to a new scramble for Africa. In reality, an African continent with more bargaining power and a clearer, more pragmatic and result-oriented leadership than ever, is also establishing its own terms of reference for its partners.

At long last, the decolonization of the post-colonial era is underway. It may take another decade or more to fully materialize, but it is tangible.

Why Africa is progressing

Here is a list of five reasons why Africa is progressing and why it needs to be re-envisioned:

1. There is a young generation demanding jobs, the implementation of African ownership and inclusion in their respective political and social systems.

2. More countries than ever are free from violence and political extremism.

3. More than a dozen countries have had 6% growth rates for more than a decade. Across the continent, one hears the same to-do list: improving infrastructure and investing in peace and jobs in order to expand the middle class.

4. A revamped structure of regional groupings is working hard to give meaning and life to the overall strategic visions of the African Union.

5. Overall, Africa is on the move — shifting from rhetoric and vision towards pragmatic implementation processes — in politics, in the economy and society at large.

The world is engaging with Africa, but in incoherent ways. Africa’s main external partners are pursuing policy strategies which reflect their respective domestic calculus. Nothing is inherently wrong with this approach, but doing so does not automatically give credit and legitimacy to their actions on the continent.

The United States has long had its preferred policy designs and priorities, mainly centering on economic liberalization and structural adjustment as its key ingredients. China pursues a different approach: It emphasizes capitalist modernization and prosperity, somewhat paradoxically, but it does so without putting weight on good governance or human rights. Europe is still beset with the most complex set of relations with Africa.

Africa as a global laboratory

The time has come to engage with each other as a global learning community — learning what works best in each place and learning to apply what works best in Africa. This must be a concerted global effort, shared by the United States, the European Union, China and other key players in Africa such as Brazil, India, Turkey and Korea.

For this effort to be successful, the following building stones would need to be included:

1. Ensuring African ownership and accepting African responsibility, also in financial terms for actions and programs.

2. Moving from correcting wrongs to promoting opportunities.

3. Turning development from an abstract concept and institution-based process into a human-centered idea, thus contributing to a new global understanding of development.

4. Broadening the definition of security toward a comprehensive understanding of human security.

5. Supporting job creation on the one hand and the social improvement of the informal sector on the other hand.

6. Extending the notion of African ownership to Africa’s soil and natural resources, thus moving from mere land-grabbing to a new reflection on the right to property in all its aspects.

7. Addressing obstacles for a lasting African renaissance which hamper the implementation of African Union strategies, with particular focus on public and private monopolies over means of production and structures of trade.

8. Recognizing the interplay between stability, rule of law, market economy and social responsibility, thus echoing the insight of the Arab Spring that what truly matters in a democracy is the period between elections.

9. Harmonizing nation-building and region-building, recognizing that the value added of region-building also in Africa depends upon preconditions, among which a new interpretation of sovereignty is the most important one.

10. Balancing African trends and global partnerships by advancing the development of coherent African strategies for their engagement with the growing number of external partners.

Making any of this a reality requires a profound shift in attitude by the external partners of Africa, most notably the United States, the European Union, China, India and Brazil. None of them is bigger than advancing from what often still is a paternalistic attitude toward true partnership.

For all the decades-long talk about dialogue and cooperation, it still has to be translated into joint proposals and projects demonstrating that the hopes of a new beginning with Africa are meant seriously.

This includes increasing the degree to which Africa’s partners are ready to learn from past mistakes or limited approaches to Africa.

This new approach to Africa, if it materializes, can become the best path to preventing new rivalries, not the least on issues that are essentially unrelated to specific African affairs.

The time has come for the promotion of such a new impulse in the global search for a better future of Africa. In a nutshell, Africa is the test case for human progress in the global age — for the African people and their leaders, as much as for all the continent’s external partners.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from Africa Consensus: New Interests, Initiatives and Partners by Ludger Kühnhardt (Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Published by arrangement with the author.


The new Africa is interacting with the world. There are more external players and more initiatives than ever.

The decolonization of Africa's post-colonial era is underway. It may take another decade, but it is tangible.

Young Africans are demanding jobs, African ownership and inclusive political and social systems.

The world is engaging with Africa, but in incoherent ways.

Africa’s international partners need to learn from their past mistakes and limited approaches to the continent.