AUSTRALIA is strengthening its relations with Africa in a calculated move to enhance its political and diplomatic engagements, promoting trade and investment, addressing peace and security challenges on the continent, and delivering targeted development and humanitarian assistance.
The move by Australia, a rich continent and country of over 23 million people with a gross domestic product of US$1, 1 trillion, is perceived by political analysts in two ways: – the genuine desire to prop-up social and political development in Africa and a bold bid to win the support of African countries for its candidacy for a temporary place on the United Nations Security Council for the 2013-14 term.
But the Australian government argues that its increased assistance to Zimbabwe and other African countries is about contributing “more effectively” to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and being a “good international citizen in a world that is becoming ever smaller and more complex”.
In Zimbabwe, for example, Australia has since the formation of the inclusive government last year been at the forefront of international efforts, both political and humanitarian, to assist the country.
Australia was one of the first countries to deliver what is now known as humanitarian plus aid to Zimbabwe – assistance that looks beyond simply emergency relief to longer-term measures to help restore capacity in essential services, such as water, education and healthcare.
Australian assistance to Zimbabwe since the formation of the unity government included $5 million to boost the rural economy and address the long-term food security needs of the people; US$2 million through Unicef to support the Education ministry in acquiring much needed material, including text books; US$5 million in food aid through the World Food Programme; and US$6 million for assistance to build Zimbabwe’s taxation administration and mobilisation of technical expertise in water and sanitation, in cooperation with South Africa.
Australia continues to pump money into Zimbabwe despite its concerns that the inclusive government has failed to fully consummate the global political agreement that gave birth to it. It blames President Robert Mugabe for the failure and is adamant that the 86-year-old nationalist should “move off the stage” if the international community is to bankroll Zimbabwe’s reconstruction.
This year, Australia’s development assistance to Africa would be increased by 40% on the previous financial year, providing assistance to over 30 countries. The assistance would explicitly focus on assisting African countries reach their MDGs, particularly in the areas of food security, water and sanitation and child and maternal health.
Stephen Smith, Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister, says Africa is changing for the better and this is under-appreciated in his country as it is internationally.
Australia sees a more confident Africa engaging with the world.
Australia now has diplomatic relations with 51 of Africa’s 53 countries, excluding Guinea Bissau and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is compared to 41 in 2007.
Smith says: “Governance has improved markedly, with progress on accountability, political liberalisation and economic management. Nearly all African elections are now genuinely contested and political representation has broadened to reflect the diversity of African society.
“Robust economic growth is also transforming Africa and raising living standards.”
The World Bank has said it expects Africa-wide economic growth of nearly 4% in 2010 compared to 1% last year.
It is against this backcloth that Australia is strengthening its relations with Africa.
Until recently, the Australian private sector had been quicker to recognise the economic importance of Africa than had the country’s public sector.
More than 300 Australian minerals and petroleum resources companies have interests in more than 40 African countries, with current and prospective investment estimated at US$20 billion.
Smith says it is not just investment as trade with Africa is also growing.
Trade in goods with Africa is valued at close to US$5, 5 billion, having grown at more than 8% annually over the past decade.
Australian companies have plans to invest US$22 billion in the African resources sector on various projects across 38 countries. Major Australian mining projects are underway in South Africa, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mozambique and Tanzania.
“Recognising Africa’s economic potential, the Australian government is committed to supporting expanded economic linkages with Africa,” Smith adds.
But just as there are sound economic reasons to enhance engagement, Australia also sees good strategic and geopolitical reasons.
Smith argues: “For Australia it makes strategic sense to engage with Africa bilaterally, regionally and through the African Union.”
He admits that the country needed Africa’s support to win the UN Security Council seat, but adds: “The cynics who assume Australia’s engagement with Africa is simply or only about this really miss the fundamental point — Australia’s re-engagement with Africa is driven by a clear-eyed and pragmatic view of our long-term strategic and economic interests into the future.”
In its submission to Australia’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Parliamentary Committee, the South African High Commission in Canberra welcomed the re-engagement with Africa, but expressed some doubts about the motives.
“There is, inevitably, a lingering sense amongst some that the reengagement with Africa is fuelled primarily by a desire to secure the African vote for the 2013/14 candidature for the Non-Permanent Seat on the United Nations Security Council,” reads the South African High Commission submission.
The Kenyan High Commission in its submissions to the committee believes trade between the two continents — growing at about 8% annually — can transform Africa.
“However, it is heavily tilted in favour of Australia,” the high commission says. “The growth in Australian mining interests in Africa has remained the most dynamic aspect of these relations .”
Besides issues of trade, Australia is also investing in research, education and health to benefit Africa.