With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 11-day tour, the United States is in the midst of sending a strong signal that it sees the economic potential of Africa. It’s a message that our own federal government would do well to emulate, lest Canadian businesses be left behind.
Even the U.S. is late to the party. Resource-hungry China has gotten an enormous head start, which Ms. Clinton has repeatedly addressed during her trip with thinly veiled shots at “outsiders” who “come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind.” Her country, she says, seeks partnerships that will provide real value to both sides. It will have plenty of competition: Other major economies, including India, South Korea and (increasingly) Brazil, are in the midst of major efforts of their own.
Although much of the continent still suffers from horrific poverty, Africa is not the basket case that it has long been seen as. Despite global turmoil, its economic growth has in recent years averaged more than 5 per cent; the United Nations Development Program recently predicted that it could be as high as 7 per cent annually by 2015. Infrastructure still falls vastly short in many areas, but improvements are making it easier to do business; so, too, is a significant decline in violent conflict. From telecommunications to construction to oil and other resource development, investment opportunities abound.
Those opportunities are difficult for Canadian companies to capitalize upon without their government helping to build bridges. While it was perfectly reasonable for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to shift some foreign-policy (and foreign aid) focus to Latin America when they took office, they have at times appeared overly reluctant to engage with Africa, perhaps because it was seen as a preoccupation of their Liberal predecessors.
Ottawa’s distaste for greasing the palms of corrupt regimes, in the way that has helped China assert such a strong position, is laudable. But as Ms. Clinton is demonstrating, with a tour that takes her primarily to functional or emerging democracies, it is possible to engage in diplomacy selectively and still have an impact. To instead treat the entire continent with a degree of indifference could be self-defeating.