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Rethinking Australia's Approach to Africa

07 May 2021
By Annalise Feller
The flags of Africa. Source: Shutterkinng,

Africa is a powerful region for future strategic policy. Australia does not demonstrate the interest in African states it should.

Africa is predicted to account for 25 percent of the world’s population by 2050, and 40 percent by 2100. Its growing urban middle class is establishing an increasing demand for goods and services. Many African economies are extroverted and thus pose great opportunities for trade. The continent is rich in raw minerals, particularly oil and gas. Yet despite the opportunities many African states present for financial growth, Australia pays comparatively little attention to African economies. Australia’s two-way goods and services trade with the region in 2018 was valued $11.4 billion. By contrast, Australia’s trade value with ASEAN states amounted to $105 billion in 2017.

Australia only has eight diplomatic posts on the continent of Africa. This is concerning considering Africa has the highest number of states in the world and reflects an apparent lack of recognition of the diversity within Africa. Australia often discusses African states as one homogenous body, yet it is one of the most diverse regions in the world.

Africa is made up of 54 states, with a population of approximately 1.37 billion people from approximately 3,000 different ethnic groups. An estimated 2000 languages are spoken within Africa, accounting for approximately one-third of the world’s languages. African geography is extremely diverse with mountains, deserts, highlands, savanna, lakes, rainforests, and beaches. Of its people, Africa is a continent rich in spiritual and cultural diversity

News readers tend to prefer reading negative stories, and thus media outlets often have a negative bias and perpetuate these harmful narratives. This is particularly common when discussing many African states, with a tendency to focus on stories on slums, poverty, conflict, corruption, and famine. The 1994 Rwandan genocide is a good example of the media’s perpetuation of a negative narrative of the region. Many media outlets such as The Economist and the Washington Post framed the genocide using language regarding terror, savagery, and tribalism, shaping the international community’s understanding of the atrocities taking place, arguably decreasing the sense of urgency people felt to intervene.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” highlights the implications of this negative narrative. When you “show people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again…that is what they become.” The single story that Australia sees when looking at the continent of Africa perpetuates the region’s differences to Australia. This leads to major setbacks by creating an “us versus them” mentality where we cannot consider ourselves as equal human beings. Rather than absorbing this false narrative, it is important that Australia dismantles it. This can be done by focusing on similarities rather than differences. This is not to say that negative aspects of life in some African states cannot be discussed, but we must not let that be the only story that is told.

There are many African states with economic, social, and political features that should be celebrated. For example, six of the ten fastest growing economies in 2020 were in Africa: South Sudan, Egypt, Benin, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. According to the Fraser Institute, Mauritius ranked 5th of 159 states in terms of economic freedom in 2016. In terms of social successes, Nigeria’s Nollywood has become the second largest film industry, second to Bollywood and is shaping the future of the film industry. In 2018, Rwanda had the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world (61.3 percent).

In the last decade, China has rapidly increased its activities in Africa. Its Belt and Road Initiative includes most of the African continent. An estimated 200,000 Africans are working in China. 15 to 16 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s exports go to China, while 14 to 21 percent of  imports arrive from China. In 2000, China-Africa trade relations were worth $10 billion. By 2014, this had grown dramatically, amounting to $220 billion. Such growth is predicted to continue.

With shifting power dynamics and China’s emergence, it is important that Australia takes initiative and a leading role in developing new relationships and alliances. If Australia breaks down prejudicial views of African states and populations, it can develop regional partnerships that diversify its trade, improving the overall sustainability of its economy and prosperity. African states could gain from forging closer ties with Australia, as Australia can provide significant assistance regarding recovery from COVID-19. The pandemic has created a number of developmental challenges in some African states, interfering with agricultural productivity, supply chains, employment, and food security. Australia has helped many states promote health security, and is working to implement programs which support inclusive economic growth, and promoting gender equality through economic recovery.

By engaging in this proactive behaviour, Australia can assert its presence in a changing international arena. Countering the narrative and the misconceptions regarding the region is the first step in redefining our strategic approach to Africa.

Annalise Feller graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts from the Australian National University, with a major in history and minor in Middle Eastern studies. This year, Annalise is completing an Honours year of a Bachelor of International Realtions with a minor in Spanish. Her thesis focuses on Western perceptions of African states, with a specific focus on the international community’s response to the Rwandan genocide. Annalise is currently an intern at the AIIA National Office.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.