In early July, the African Union Summit in Niamey, Niger, launched the operational phase of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, a project to liberalise trade and enhance industrial development and infrastructure. There is still a long road ahead, but the rapid ratification and progress on negotiations differentiate this process from earlier economic development initiatives and illustrates growing African agency.
The continent has been a regular item on the G7’s agenda since the Kananaskis Summit in Canada in 2002. But engagement with Africa is no longer just about development aid. The growth potential of many African countries, as well as the potential demographic dividend, is significant. Indeed, Africa’s current child population is 580 million and is four times larger than that of Europe. As a market of more than 1.2 billion people with a rising middle class, the continent is also an expanding frontier of economic opportunities.
While the continent continues to face challenges such as poverty, limited industrial capacity, violent extremism and intra-state conflict – some of these assuaged and others exacerbated by external partners – it is also often at the receiving end of rules that entrench global inequities. These include trade rules and arrangements that allow unfair trading practices such as agricultural subsidies to continue in rich countries, or international taxation systems that enable illicit financial flows, or indeed the new inequalities that digital commerce has created regarding data, privacy and where taxes of the big tech companies, which are the major beneficiaries, are paid.
Inequality is the focus of the French G7 presidency this year – inequality between rich and poor people, between rich and poor countries, and between those who make the rules and those who take them. Too often the compensatory mechanisms for the latter are too ineffectual, are insufficient or spawn new problems. The rise of the digital economy has only exacerbated this, while the growing aversion among some G7 members to multilateral rules that apply to all erodes both the principle of multilateralism and its impact.
Deeper cooperation between the G7 and African leaders can be fruitful in several areas, specifically investment and climate change, violent extremism and migration.
Initiatives are under way to increase economic opportunity in Africa to curb the flow of economic migrants to Europe and elsewhere – from the European Union’s ambitious External Investment Plan to the G20’s Compact with Africa and the EU Trust Fund. The operationalisation of the CFTA, a stronger focus on improving connectivity, and many African countries’ commitment to develop industrial capacity and regional value chains provide incentives for the G7 private sector to establish or ramp up its local presence on the continent. Green industrialisation and renewable energy are on Africa’s agenda and some countries are leapfrogging into more sustainable industries, while the continent has launched the African Renewable Energy Initiative intended to achieve 300GW of additional renewable energy generation by 2030. Business and climate change need to be part of the same double helix.
Violent extremism and migration are two other areas where cooperation is necessary and happening, but its content needs to change. G7 members are active in counterterrorism initiatives in the Sahel particularly, providing much-needed assistance to under-resourced states. Europeans have included a developmental dimension in their cooperation, recognising the intersection between poverty and grievances that can lead to extremism. However, the overwhelming emphasis has been on security dimensions, which have been insufficient to address the underlying causes. This failure has also made the response to the flows of people seeking a better life in Europe brutal, standing in contrast to the very human rights norms that the West considers its own. In Libya – geographically the springboard to the Mediterranean, but also the catalyst for much of the deepening instability in the Sahel since 2011 – G7 members have been ambivalent in their engagements and driven by their own particular interests. A partnership of equals in this domain requires the G7 to respect United Nations resolutions relating to North Africa and the Sahel, rather than seeking to advance individual states’ geopolitical agendas. A more coordinated approach to dealing with the fallout from the western intervention in Libya, an approach that respects UN resolutions, would be a significant step forward in bringing more stability and governance to a region that has had significant consequences for the continent’s attempt to take control of its peace and development agenda.