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Speech by the Tánaiste at the Africa-Ireland Economic Forum

Irish Aid, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Africa, 2011
‘Ireland and Africa – Our Partnership in a Changing World’

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Friends from Africa, from Ireland and from elsewhere,

Thank you for participating in this ground-breaking event; the first ever Forum devoted specifically to Ireland’s economic relations with Africa. 

This event, and the new Africa Strategy that I am launching today, reflect Ireland’s real desire to develop a new phase in our relationship with Africa.  What we are saying today is this:

that we want to build on and strengthen our already deep bonds of friendship in a way that reflects the new realities of Africa, the continent of the future. 

That we can move forward together, enriching and maturing relationships, from which we, all of us, already benefit so much.

That it is time to lay the groundwork for the development of a strong new economic relationship in the years to come.  A relationship with far greater emphasis on trade and investment.

Your presence here today is testimony to the strong bonds that already exist between us. I would like to pay particular tribute to the Ambassadors of African countries based here in Dublin for taking the initiative which has led to this event today.  I know that the Ambassadors and their colleagues in their Embassies work very hard to enhance relations with Ireland on every level. I am also delighted to welcome so many representatives from other African countries that do not have a permanent presence in Ireland, but whose friendship we greatly value and with whom we would like to see stronger and deeper relationships.  I want also to say a special word of thanks for their support and commitment to our hosts, and also partners in organising this event , the UCD Smurfit Business School.

For many years, the conventional wisdom was that positive change would never happen in Africa;  that it was a continent doomed to autocracy, inequality and grinding underdevelopment.  But one thing we have learned in our lifetimes is that no country or region is immune to political, economic and social change, and that the effects of that change in one region can have major implications for others.  After years of apparent stability on the surface, change can often come unexpectedly. 

In many ways, Ireland has a similar experience.  For decades after achieving independence, Ireland struggled to secure economic prosperity.  It was many years before we achieved a transition towards greater prosperity – for the potential of independence to be realised.  But it did happen.  Ireland became a centre for investment and technical excellence.  People – Irish and foreign – wanted to live in, rather than leave, Ireland.   We experienced dramatic political, economic and societal change.   That change endures, notwithstanding our current difficulties.

Now, many of the old working assumptions are being swept away in Africa.  Africa is increasingly seen as a continent rich in young people, mineral wealth and economic potential. Since the start of this year, we have watched in awe, and supported, the demand for democracy, participation and respect for human rights being driven by courageous young people across a number of North African States. 

The momentous events in Libya are the latest in a series which seemed impossible only a year ago.  As I said on the day when members of the National Transitional Council entered Tripoli, the time has ended when dictators can expect to rule without regard for the wishes of their people.  The demand for democratic government cannot be permanently suppressed.  The power of the democratic ideal, combined with the energy unleashed by the communications and technological revolution, can overcome the traditional, brutal response of the dictatorial regime. The challenge now is to channel this energy into the establishment of stable and truly democratic structures of government.

While the world has been transfixed by the remarkable developments in North Africa and the Middle East, coverage of Africa in recent times has been dominated by the devastating humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.  The Government and the Irish people have responded quickly and strongly to the crisis.  We will continue to do so as the situation develops over the coming months.  We recognise our moral obligation.  And we will continue to focus international attention on the systemic global hunger crisis, and especially its manifestation in sub-Saharan Africa.  I will do so again in New York next week at the United Nations,  at our latest international meeting on nutrition, which we have organised with the UN, with US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and with our African partners. 

However, there is one major difference between this humanitarian crisis and previous crises in Africa.  Nobody can claim today that the crisis in the Horn of Africa now defines the African continent.  It has been caused by a devastating combination of drought, instability and conflict.  In other parts of the continent, these issues are finally being addressed.  The wider picture in Africa is a complex one, and we need to recognise the positive developments, and their long term significance.  Many previously intractable conflicts are being resolved.  A new State was established in July in South Sudan.  Democratic elections are being held, and democratic transitions are beginning to take place in many countries across Africa.   The demand for democratic participation is increasing and there is growing pressure for political leaders to be more clearly accountable to their people. 

Many African countries are now experiencing remarkable levels of economic growth.  We have heard a range of impressive statistics from previous speakers today.  Larger African economies, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt, have averaged growth rates consistently above 5% since the year 2000.  Some countries, including Angola and Sierra Leone, have been growing at more than 10% in recent years.  The World Bank reports economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa of just under 5% in 2010, projected to rise over the next two years to almost 6% in 2012.  The IMF has predicted that growth in Africa as a whole will continue at well over 5% to 2015.  Although much of this growth is from a relatively low base, and the realisation of projected growth will depend in part on developments in the global economy, there is a clear lesson, that sustainable economic growth is now taking place across the African continent.  International trade is one of the sectors driving this growth and confidence.  African exports increased by 7.5% in 2010, and growth in domestic demand led to an overall increase of 9.1% in imports.

In this new environment, there is a growing debate about the use and distribution of home-produced wealth and the development of Africa’s natural resources.  Through our development programme, we have been working with our partners in Africa, not just to provide humanitarian relief and to respond to crises and emergencies, but also to tackle poverty systematically; to help build systems of accountable democratic Government; to empower the development of African economies and societies in accordance with their own development plans.  Real progress is being made in building health and education systems.  The communications revolution has opened up dramatic new opportunities.  There is a growing middle class in many African countries.  Africans are building trade with each other and with the world, and business opportunities are opening up.  We recognise that huge challenges remain, that corruption and human rights abuses persist, that high growth rates do not automatically end poverty and can widen inequalities, and that poverty, drought, population growth and renewed conflict can easily set back apparently dramatic progress.  But the reality is that many African countries are developing the capacity to mobilise domestic resources to drive their own development.

We provide development aid to Africa to fight poverty and hunger and promote inclusive economic growth.  Our long term aim is to end dependency on aid, to build a new relationship with Africa based on politics, democracy and trade. 

It is right that we do so, and it is also in our interests as a country.  Ireland is one of the most open economies in the world.  Our future lies in our capacity to trade: to sell goods and services, in the global economy.  To do so, we must expand our horizons beyond our traditional export markets.  The centre of gravity in the global economy is shifting towards the emerging economies, and beyond them to Africa. 

More than ever we are inextricably connected into global trading systems, global communications networks, worldwide markets..  We are increasingly linked together by modern technologies and communications, and we live in a world where social media have created, a global open and public forum. One that connects towns and villages worldwide, linking companies, civil society organisations and individuals everywhere – across the developed and the developing worlds.    

We are also bound together more and more by our common responsibility, and our common interest, to assist each other in facing global challenges, such as climate change, disease and public health pandemics, terrorism and human and drug-trafficking.  In such a world, we are all neighbours, and we should all look at ways to build alliances and to cooperate for mutual benefit.  The challenge is no longer how we in the developed world can transfer sufficient resources to assist developing countries, but how all of us on this planet can work together, and how we can manage scarce resources, including understanding the impact of climate change.

Ireland’s relationship with Africa been long, positive and constructive.  We were never a colonial power and, in many ways, our own historical experience gives Irish people a particular insight into the experience of many African countries.  We have had strong people-to-people links, initially through the work of missionary educators and health workers who made a significant contribution to developing schools and hospitals and who continue their work even now.  They have been joined in the unfolding Irish-African story by the many young women and men who work for NGOs and with the Government’s aid programme, building on the educational and medical heritage and focusing in particular on the provision of basic services for the people.  We are rightly proud of our tradition in United Nations peacekeeping, a story which has seen several chapters written in Africa, from the first Irish deployment, in the Congo in 1960, through to Liberia and Chad, and including contributions in many other regions of the Continent.

Irish writers and musicians have visited and been inspired by Africa.  Tourists are visiting Africa.  And increasingly private companies, exporters and investors are seeking out opportunities and links. 

Given our long-standing relationship, given our significant commitment at present, and given the rapid development of African economies creating new demand, this is surely the time to recognise officially that Ireland’s relationship with Africa is changing and maturing.   Our aim is to move on to the next phase in Ireland’s relationship, where we seek to establish meaningful partnership, dialogue, collaboration and exchange with our partner countries across Africa. We do so conscious that nowhere is perfect, that challenges of governance, inequality remain, but that as the voices of African people are heard and listened to,  the circumstances are being created in which our relationship can become full and mutually beneficial.

Against this background, I am delighted to launch today an Africa Strategy document for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade entitled Ireland and Africa: Our partnership with a changing continent’.   The document updates our analysis of trends and developments across Africa and the way in which Africa relates to the wider world.  It recognises that Africa is a Continent of more than 50 very different countries.  It acknowledges that progress is being made in reducing conflict, fostering democracy and observing and implementing human rights norms, and prioritises further work and dialogue with African Governments in these areas.  We commit ourselves to stepping up our engagement with African counterparts at official and political level, bilaterally and within the EU and UN contexts.    

The Strategy recognises the remarkable economic growth in many African countries, but also highlights that the pace and extent of development is not uniform, that some countries and communities are benefiting less than others, and that many people are being left behind.  This means that we still have, and will continue to have, a role in supporting and promoting policies and programmes to eradicate poverty and hunger, through our own Irish Aid programme and through our positions and policies within the European Union, the United Nations and elsewhere.  Poverty and hunger remains the greatest obstacle to growth and inclusion in Africa, and we will maintain our focus on these challenges. 

Thirdly, the Strategy recognises that there is significant potential in the future for strengthened economic links between Ireland and Africa.  As Africa’s economy grows, there will be mutually advantageous opportunities for trade.  Indigenous Irish companies, and Irish-based multinationals, who are amongst the world’s most successful and competitive exporters and solution-providers, are well-placed to play a greater role in meeting Africa’s increasingly complex needs.  Through my Department and our Embassies across Africa, and in close cooperation with Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Bord Bia and other Agencies and business associations, we commit ourselves in this Strategy to helping with the research, the networking and the groundwork that can identify and facilitate two-way trade and investment.  This Forum is an early and very concrete manifestation of that commitment from our side.

At its core, we are saying in our new approach to Africa that we will engage more with African counterparts, that we will talk more about Africa at the EU and UN tables, and, most importantly, that we will listen more to the voices of our African partners and to the people of Africa.

This dialogue will recognise the inter-linkages between the various aspects of the relationship that exists between Ireland, and the European Union and our partners in Africa.  What we call the political issues are fundamental to the change we are seeing across Africa, which must be developed and sustained.  Democracy, governance, conflict resolution and human rights are not abstract concepts but real and practical issues with real and practical consequences for the people of Africa and for our relationships with them. 

Where we see democracy and the rule of law, good governance and observance of human rights, we will also see more peace and less conflict, better standards of living, increased social capital and expanding economies.  This must be, and increasingly is, Africa’s future direction.

And that future, in many ways, is one of enviable opportunity.   Africa now has the chance to leapfrog whole phases of political, economic and social development, learning from the achievements and the mistakes in Europe, and America, and Asia and elsewhere, and drawing on Africa’s own rich resources, achievements and traditions.   

The 21st Century will not be a European, an Asian, an American or an African one.  Economic prosperity across the planet will be dependent on global approaches and solutions to global challenges.  Africa will have a central role to play as a resource-rich and vibrant continent.  Ireland, and Irish people and our business community will be there to work with our African friends to achieve economic and social benefits for all our peoples. 

I have been greatly impressed by the contributions from previous speakers, outlining the reality of economic progress across much of the African continent.  I look forward to meeting with as many of you as possible and to discussing your experience, interests and opportunities in Africa, and how the Government, my Department and our Embassies in Africa can assist you.