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Try Multilateral, Pragmatic Approach in Africa

Kurt Campbell and Michael Schiffer
Des Moines Register
June 2007

Africa was again given only slight attention at the just completed G-8 summit. Global warming and missile defense, both worthy issues, dominated the talks, but the African agenda is far too important for world leaders to ignore.

Rather than risking another round of power meddling and competition in Africa - with China at the center of the scramble - Africa would benefit from a closer multilateral collaboration that amounts to a new compact for the beleaguered continent.

Unfortunately, several factors have complicated the sort of concerted multilateral, regional and international cooperation needed to confront the range of issues on Africa's agenda.

For one, the issues facing the African continent are extremely complex. It is exceedingly difficult to untangle many of the continent's conflicts - which might mix ecological or environmental concerns, ethnic or religious rivalries, economic grievances, and more - and effectively identify and address root causes.

Prevailing practices in Africa have historically blocked cooperative efforts and effective action. Non-interference and the unwillingness in Africa of one state to criticize another provide little incentive for countries to act together. And Africa has yet to fully accept the idea of "responsibility to protect," a principle aimed at promoting concrete policies to enable governments, regional organizations and the United Nations to protect vulnerable populations.

Changing the way countries deal with one another is one step, but collaborative action must be backed by money and manpower. Those shortcomings, which afflict economic development, governance and civil-society institutions, are most visible in peacekeeping efforts. The African Union was barely able to come up with enough troops for its Darfur mission, and those it had were ill-trained and equipped and poorly financed.

A range of political factors guides the engagement of outside powers with and in Africa. The weight of history has often had a distorting effect for European powers and African states as they navigate relationships fraught with the echoes of its colonial and imperial past. International efforts are undermined by the carryover effect from the double standards of old-style power politics. Much as some in the United States and Europe criticize China's "no strings attached" approach to Africa - and rightly so - beating up African nations in international forums and then looking the other way is also a sin. We profess to prefer education, but supply arms. We encourage democracy, except where our own interests are concerned.

Finally, there is often a lack of international consensus over how to deal with Africa's problems - not just on security and peacekeeping, but for development coordination, education and health issues.

So how do we develop effective policy responses to overcome these challenges? A compact agreed upon at the G-8 summit, based on seven basic tenets, could provide a solid multilateral approach:

1. Strengthen standards on anti-corruption, good governance, human rights and the responsibility to protect.

2. Seek to end special country-to-country relationships and create truly multilateral relationships that could strengthen coherence on issues such as development and allow for greater consistency in promotion of agreements that speak to universal values such as democracy.

3. Recognize the new challenges that are increasingly stressing the continent, such as ecological collapse, which will all but certainly be made worse by climate change.

4. Make a practical effort to boost African institutional capacity at both the regional and subregional level. For example, several commentators have proposed building up African Union peacekeeping capabilities by having the United Nations provide financial and logistical support. Also build capacity to address new and emerging transnational threats such as climate change and pandemic diseases.

5. Seek ways to engage with China as a "responsible stakeholder" in Africa. Indeed, it might be time for China to transform itself from a consumer of public goods to a provider of public goods. If China becomes a strong upholder of international rules - signing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, for example - it would add immeasurably to the problem-solving power that can be brought to bear on Africa's challenges.

6. Don't shy away from experimenting with pragmatic and focused ad-hoc multilateralism. Some issues can be handled by neighbors; others will require regional engagement, and still others fully global responses. If we work to place the problem at the center, we might do a better job of matching up institutions, capacities and issues.

7. Seek to build on and reinforce the success that we have had with problem solving and institution building in Africa already. The European experience with institution and capacity building started with pragmatically oriented, narrow institutions such as the European Coal and Steel Community and developed through experimentation over decades, with many bumps along the path. African institution building faces a similarly rocky road.

Despite the seeming enormity or intractability of the challenges Africa faces, it is quite possible - perhaps only possible - to create a stable, secure, democratic and prosperous Africa through modest practical and pragmatic steps. Through prose, not poetry.

Kurt Campbell leads the Center for New American Security in Washington, DC.
Michael Schiffer is a program officer at the Muscatine-based Stanley Foundation. This analysis was developed following a conference on "Africa at Risk or Rising? The Role of Europe, North America, and China on the Continent" sponsored last month by the Stanley Foundation and the Aspen Atlantic Group.

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