Ireland and Africa have much to learn from each other
2018-08-01 13:07:08 -
Photo source: Flickr

By Simon Coveney

In exploring the richness of the relationship between Ireland and Africa and the real and exciting possibilities that flow from it, I am conscious over the last few years that there have been many reminders of the interconnectedness of our world, in particular our place in Europe and its neighbourhood, of which Africa is particularly important.

Africa is a place that is close to my heart, both personally and politically. Africa is a place I find both challenging and exciting, a vibrant, growing place, at the centre of our future. The vitality and potential of Africa’s young people is its greatest resource — the reason why the former Ethiopian prime minister said to me, when we met last November in Addis Ababa, that this century is the African century.

Of course, Ireland and Africa are not strangers to each other; we share a long and complex history of connection and interconnection. There are the frequently mentioned touchstones: the contributions of our missionaries, our NGOs, and of course Ireland’s development co-operation programme. Perhaps sometimes there may be a tendency to imagine our relationships is primarily determined through this prism of solidarity. However, there is much more to our connections that we can and do value.

Ireland and Africa have remained connected over the centuries by the innate Irish desire to travel and migrate to distance lands, often in search of a better life but also there were those motivated to be part of a larger project of justice and solidarity. I am thinking of those women and men who have worked in rural Africa, saving lives and building communities: their commitment to mother and child health has helped many tens of thousands of people and contributed to the development of health care systems in many countries. And those educators whose work touched the lives of so many; in my visits to Africa as a minister I am always struck by the number of senior people I meet who have been educated by an Irish teacher, brother or sister. Often those they educate are not the great and the good, but those most vulnerable.

Ireland’s experience of colonialism and struggle for self-determination inspired a generation of African national leaders, including Nelson Mandela who recalled in his visit to Ireland in 1990 how inspirational the existence of the Irish State was in encouraging those struggling against apartheid. And in turn Mandela has been an inspiration to us, and to many around the world.

In many respects, the scale and diversity of Africa as a continent should prevent us from attempting to talk about it as one place. Africa is not a country and yet, in our imagination, we often ascribe it the characteristics of one country, much to the frustration Africa’s leading commentators. Africa is complex, more complex than we can perhaps appreciate – at once prosperous and poor, peaceful and troubled, a place of great potential but with interconnected and cyclical challenges that will take generations to overcome.

In the decades since independence, we have worked with our African partners to support their post-colonial projects of state building and development. Over this time, we have witnessed considerable progress in health and education services and in the entrepreneurship of young Africans striking a path towards prosperity. New challenges have come into focus such as climate change and gender equality, where there has been less progress and where urgent action is required if we are to secure a future for the next generation.

Many African governments recognise that the way to change direction and unlock the inherent economic potential in their countries is to build a strong internal market for Africa, and increase intra-Africa trade as a means of creating jobs-rich growth. Currently intra-Africa trade accounts for only 12 per cent of Africa’s total trade, compared to 60 per cent in western Europe. There are interesting moves afoot to eliminate barriers to free trade across the continent; a summit in Kigali last March agreed to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area, the largest such area agreed since the formation of the WTO.

Ireland supports this initiative, and through our development co-operation programme and the EU is providing assistance to countries interested in joining, for example through Trade Mark East Africa.  Additionally, our work on the development of value chains, support for smallholder farmers, and building economies of scale is helping communities prepare – in an inclusive way – to take advantage of the coming opportunities.

But it is true, in general terms, that for various reasons our trading relationship with Africa is not as substantial as it is with most other regions or, indeed, as it could and should be … I think we have much to learn from each other, not just in terms of trade and resources, but in the sharing of experiences and best practices. I am personally very excited, for example, about the work of our embassy in Nairobi, which has developed a framework of agri-food cooperation between Ireland and Kenya, which I was proud to launch last November. This approach goes beyond traditional development instruments, and seeks to identify key requirements within the Kenyan agriculture sector which might be met by Irish expertise, and match the two. 

And the relationship should be a mutually beneficial one. Indeed, there is much that we in Ireland can learn from our African partners, through a greater understanding of how our common objectives of creating jobs, growing business opportunities and transforming lives are pursued elsewhere. It is for that reason that I am delighted today to formally announce that the sixth Africa-Ireland Economic Forum will be held in Dublin, on 11 October next.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at the recent Institute of International and European Affairs event on Africa.
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