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Column: Our changing relationship with Africa is strong and enduring

Yes, Africa faces huge challenges, but it is also making remarkable progress and Ireland played its part in that, writes TD Joe Costello.

Joe Costello

It is time to cast aside the old assumptions about Africa. Yes, the continent faces huge challenges, but it is also making remarkable progress: it is rich in young people, mineral wealth and economic potential, says Minister for Trade and Development Joe Costello TD.

TODAY is Africa Day, a day to explore African culture and diversity and to celebrate the rich potential of this dynamic continent. In Ireland, Africa Day is an opportunity for Irish and African people to celebrate the strong and enduring links between our nations.

Ireland has had a long and positive relationship with Africa, forged over decades through the tireless work of missionaries and, later, those working with Irish aid agencies and the Government’s programme of overseas assistance, Irish Aid.

Ireland’s peacekeeping role

We are also proud of our tradition in United Nations peacekeeping, which first saw Irish troops deploy to the Congo in 1960 and subsequently to UN missions in Liberia and Chad.

Today, many Africans have made Ireland their home and are contributing to the fabric of our communities and to our culture and economy.

To celebrate this close friendship, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is supporting a nationwide programme of events this week to mark Africa Day. Working closely with city councils, community groups and African embassies, we are hosting cultural and family-focused events, workshops and lectures in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.

Set aside your assumptions

It is time to cast aside the old assumptions about the continent: yes, Africa faces huge challenges, but it is also making remarkable progress. It is a continent rich in young people, mineral wealth and economic potential.

More African countries are at peace and building democratic institutions. There are 40 million more children in school than a decade ago. The rate of HIV infections has fallen by up to three-quarters. Consumer spending will almost double in the next ten years and a new African middle class is emerging.

According to the IMF, economic growth across Africa is expected to surpass 5 per cent a year to 2015. While much of this growth is from a low base – and is unevenly spread – it is clear that Africa is emerging as the continent of the future.

Aid, while still crucial, is a diminishing proportion of overall development finance flowing in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, domestic economies are generating up to ten times as much in taxes and other revenue as they receive in aid.  There is a real chance that aid as we know it will be redundant in much of Africa within a generation or two. This is a sign of success and Ireland played its part in it.

Irish aid in Africa

Like Ireland, African countries today identify job creation, foreign direct investment, private sector development and trade as the drivers of sustainable development. The consistent messages I hear during my trade-related visits is that Africa is open for business.

The Government’s new policy for global development, One World, One Future, recommits Ireland to working tirelessly to fight poverty and hunger in Africa, but also to investing more in promoting economic growth that benefits the poor. Growth that is sustainable can provide jobs for millions of people, empowering them to invest in education and healthcare for their families and thus break the cycle of poverty.

But assisting developing countries to prosper is not simply about material wealth: a more equal world will enhance the prospects for global peace and stability and unite us to act against global challenges such as climate change, terrorism and human and drug-trafficking.

Our long term aim is to end dependency on aid and to build a new relationship with Africa based on politics, democracy and trade, as set out in our Africa Strategy.

The opportunity is there now as more African countries grow and trade. Ireland is one of the world’s most open economies and our success depends on selling goods and services in the global economy.  We must expand beyond our traditional export markets towards the emerging economies and beyond to Africa.

Trading partners

Many African countries now need goods and services which Irish companies are well-placed to supply. The Irish Exporters Association recently projected that trade with Africa will grow to €24 billion by the end of the decade.  Today, there are approximately 170 Irish companies doing business in South Africa alone.

My Department works closely with Enterprise Ireland to build two-way trade and investment, focusing initially on the opportunities in the South Africa and Nigerian markets.  I led an exploratory trade visit to Ghana and Nigeria last November, in which Enterprise Ireland and An Bord Bia participated and I will lead an Enterprise Ireland Trade Mission to West Africa this autumn.

Nevertheless, while we celebrate Africa’s progress, we also recognise that major challenges remain: today, 870 million people globally live with hunger, most of them women and children in sub-Saharan Africa. Every day, 7,000 children under the age of five die and the under-lying cause is malnutrition. In Sierra Leone, where Ireland is working to tackle severe malnutrition among mothers and children, one in five children dies before the age of five.

Through Irish Aid we will continue to work with our partners in Africa to respond to crises and emergencies, and to tackle poverty systematically; to help build effective health and education systems and accountable, democratic Government.

We are conscious of the imperative to achieve maximum value for money and full accountability for the investments we are making. Our policy, One World, One Future re-commits us to the highest standards of openness and accountability to the Irish people and to our development partners.

We will not tolerate corruption

There can be no tolerance for corruption – we will continue to monitor and strengthen our systems to prevent it, and swift action will be taken if Irish taxpayers’ money is jeopardised. Last year the Tánaiste immediately suspended aid to the Government of Uganda on learning that €4 million of Irish funding had been misappropriated. That funding has been reimbursed in full and I have made it clear that we will not return to funding through Government systems in Uganda until we are fully confident that internal financial controls have been strengthened and strong action taken against those implicated in this fraud.

We are only too aware that many families in Ireland are feeling the impact of our current economic difficulties. Our priority right now is to restore jobs and growth at home. It is absolutely important to address the economic and financial difficulties in which we find ourselves in Ireland. Almost everybody has taken a reduction in income and a reduction in standard of living. Our overseas aid programme has also been reduced by more than 30 per cent since 2008.

Today, we spend less than 5 cents of every €10 the country produces on our programme of global development. This helps millions of people, the vast majority of whom live on less than €1.25 a day.

We will not ignore those that need help

I believe that most Irish people – when they see how much that investment achieves – would not begrudge it. Indeed in responding to tragedies such as the Haiti earthquake and the famine in Somalia, the Irish people have shown that the plight of the poorest is not something that they will ignore.

But our development programme is not a purely charitable endeavour, although its values and principles are of the highest moral calibre. We are making investments in the well-being of Africa and its people, investing in their futures, but also in ours.

Joe Costello is an Irish Labour Party politician. For a full of Africa Day programme click here.

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Joe Costello

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