When African leaders gathered in Ethiopia at the weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the African Union, Western leaders were conspicuously absent. Not so the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who not only made the journey to Addis Ababa in person but used the powwow to announce that Brazil was wiping off £600m of debt from the continent.
Brazil’s strategic, rather than generous, gesture forms part of a pattern of rapidly expanding Latin American economic ties to Africa known as South-South cooperation, which has seen Brazil open 19 new embassies there over a decade and multiply its trade to Africa five-fold over roughlythe same period. This is good news for everyone. Trade with Africa is not a finite resource that Brazil is exploiting to the detriment of anyone else.
At the same time, we should not feel entirely relaxed about the way that Brazil, not to mention China, and others, are are grasping opportunities in Africa that we in the West are neglecting. This is happening partly because so many Western policy-makers still cherish a fixed image of Africa as a group of supplicant nations to whom a certain amount of charity in the form of aid needs doling out.
Obsessed with ethnic conflicts and a sterile aid-versus-trade debate, we remain largely oblivious to the fact that half the world’s fastest growing economies are now in Africa and that the continent’s GDP growth of over 5 per cent in recent years has placed it only just behind Asia in growth terms.
Corruption, poor infrastructure and uncontrolled population growth could yet blow the oft-predicted African renaissance off course, but as the Brazilians realise, it is time to get serious about Africa’s potential. If we in Europe want to re-set our own often frayed relationships to the continent, we could do worse than follow Brazil’s imaginative example.