New Zealand High Commission Pretoria, South Africa

Changing the conversation about Africa: Speech by MFAT CEO, John Allen: October 2010

In October 2010, MFAT CEO, John Allen delivered this Opening Address to the NZ Institute of International Affairs' Seminar: Africa on the Move.

Changing the conversation about Africa
John Allen

It is wonderful to have you here today to talk about Africa.

The question posed by Brian Lynch was: should New Zealand recalibrate its attitude to Africa? The answer is yes. Yes we have to recalibrate our attitude to Africa; our conversation within New Zealand about Africa.

Readers of the Dominion Post will have seen on page 2 of Tuesday’s paper that we had been flying the Libyan flag at Parliament because of the visit of a senior Libyan Minister. The Libyan Secretary for [Tertiary Education] was in Wellington to talk about trade and to sign an agreement under which 300 Libyan students would study in New Zealand under Libyan government funding – a deal worth about $30 million to New Zealand per annum.

The article was remarkable because, one, it made the paper. Two, because it talked about Africa. Three because it talked about Africa not through the lens of disaster and disruption. And four because it talked about education – a thing which New Zealanders would usually think is deficient on the Continent.

New Zealanders tend to view Africa through the lens of disaster and disease because we were brought up in the Western literary tradition of the likes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: a portrayal of Africa that is chaotic, dark, and slightly savage.

We need to change these perspectives on Africa.

We need to change these perspectives, one, because of the significant growth that the African Lions have been delivering. Two because of Africa’s extraordinary mineral wealth: oil, gas, water. And, three, most importantly, because of the youth and vitality of the Continent; a Continent that is young, vibrant and entrepreneurial; a Continent whose voice is increasingly being heard and is increasingly defining international debate.

It is necessary for New Zealand and other countries to engage with Africa.

The African Lions have a greater GDP per capita than the BRICs (a group of countries that the Institute has often focused on).

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing greater growth than South East Asia.

How do we deliver this new engagement?

There are issues in Africa: and we are not closing our eyes to the challenges that the Continent faces. There is famine. There is disease.

But we recognise in those cases that action is being taken (whether that action is enough is of course another open question).

We cannot, however, use that lens to write off the Continent.

I am advocating a different language, a different conversation within this country.

And I have a few ideas about how we are to achieve that new conversation.

First, we need a plan. We need to be strategic, to take a focused approach. MFAT is currently working on iteration draft four of the new Africa Strategy. Your views can help shape and inform this strategy.

Second, it is critically important for New Zealand society to learn about Africa from African communities in New Zealand, to utilize their stories, experiences and understandings of Africa. While there may be some who say that these communities are out of touch with contemporary Africa, we need to recognise this valuable resource.

Third, we need to thicken official links with Africa. There are resource constraints. We have posts in Pretoria and in Cairo, but capturing a whole continent from just two posts is beyond even our colleagues at those posts – talented as they are. We need to look at how we can leverage our Commonwealth connections, working through Consuls General, linking with likeminded countries and engaging with the African Union.

These actions may not provide the answer in themselves, but they are necessary for New Zealand to become more engaged.

Fourth, we must ensure that New Zealand business turns up. New Zealand business is not absent from Africa: Fonterra is active in Algeria and Egypt [and South Africa], and phosphate from Algeria helps assure our advantage in pastoral farming. It is important to help New Zealand business to calibrate correctly the risk / profit assessment: it is often said that profits are greatest when the gap between reality and perception is greatest. Pivotal here is that we should be thinking of Africa as an investment destination, not just as an aid destination. If we see Africa purely through the aid lens we will simply default to old positions.

Fifth, we need more people to people links and understanding, including tourist connections. We need to encourage African leaders and opinion leaders to come to New Zealand.

We already know of the power of sport in the relationship with Africa – as seen with the recent FIFA World Cup celebrations in South Africa, where the All Whites did outstandingly well, I might add. The Rugby World Cup in 2011 offers another opportunity and we need to step up and seize the opportunity to engage with business, leaders, and the diplomatic communities. We must harness the power of sport to unite and excite.

When we have weaved all these strands together – the plan, the African communities, official links, business, and people to people links – we have to ask ourselves: given the number of countries wanting opportunity in Africa, what can we offer and what do we want?

We have historical links with Africa, we have established sporting links with Africa, and we have a strong ethical record on issues such as Rwanda. This gives us some credit.

But we can’t rest on our past links and say that Africa will be waiting for New Zealand’s views. We must be very, very clear what New Zealand is adding.

There are areas where we can add value, including agriculture and agricultural science and food safety. We cannot say that we will simply export New Zealand pastoral farming as a neat template, but we have the science and the know-how and can adapt to the local conditions and needs. Expect to hear more about this agricultural diplomacy.

There are other areas of science as well where we can offer something to Africa. Companies like Cognition are already active in the region. New Zealand has extensive public and private experience in maternal health.

We recognise that when New Zealand engages with Africa there are real lessons New Zealand can learn.

We will not engage with a 19th for 20th century perspective, but a 21st century view recognising the continent’s dynamism. New Zealand is again somewhat behind the world in recognising Africa. The conversation matters; it matters to this country how we are perceived and received on the world stage. And it matters for us to talk collectively to change the conversation and understanding in this country.

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