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Friday 2 June 2023 Dublin: 11°C
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Column Ireland is reviewing its foreign policy – but it's asking the wrong questions
Taking the example of Ireland’s evolving relationship with Africa, it becomes clear that the DFA’s review of external relations might not be on the right track, writes Andy Storey.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently reviewing Ireland’s foreign policy and external relations, and has invited interested parties to make submissions. Amongst the questions it has asked contributors to respond to are the following:

How can our foreign policy and economic diplomacy support [Irish] economic development and growth?

How can a commitment to international development be better reflected across Ireland’s foreign policy?

Unfortunately, the answers to these two questions may not be compatible, as is increasingly evident if we look at the example of Ireland’s evolving relationship with Africa. The Department produced a document in September 2011 entitled Ireland and Africa: Our Partnership with a Changing Continent.

This new Africa strategy contained a number of elements that suggested an increasing prioritisation of Irish commercial interests in Africa. For example, the discussion of the World Bank in Africa ignored critiques of that organisation’s record – on issues such as promoting the displacement of small farmers from their land – and instead focused on increasing efforts to ensure that Irish companies get as many contracts as possible to supply goods and services to Bank projects. This could be argued to run counter to the document’s claimed emphasis on “building local systems and the capability to deliver local solutions”, which would require that African companies be accorded priority.

Appropriate strategies?

The strategy likewise claimed to be committed to reducing hunger in Africa but did not say how this was compatible with efforts (also highlighted in the document) to promote the sale of Irish food and drink products in Africa. If local production is displaced by such exports, how is African food security advanced? And in view of the contribution of the Irish financial services sector to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, and destabilisation of the global economy more generally, how appropriate was it for the strategy to prioritise the promotion of Irish financial service exports to African countries?

Those Irish commercial interests already present in Africa were lauded in the strategy: “The footprint of Irish economic activity has been enhanced by the presence of a small number of multinational companies with strong Irish connections… Their reach is normally across several countries, and they are brands that would be recognised by many African business people and Government contacts”.

But for what reasons might they be recognised? Kenmare Resources in Mozambique has been documented avoiding local taxation, while Tullow Oil in Uganda and elsewhere has signed contracts for resource exploration that are far from transparent; it also faces charges (denied by the company) of offering bribes to the Ugandan government to help it avoid taxes.

Environmentally damaging projects in Africa

This emergent Irish approach to Africa was equally evident in a consultancy report produced in September 2012 for the Irish Engineering Enterprises Federation (part of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation), Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Entitled Winning Business in Africa, the report honed in on how Irish companies might win contracts from international aid donors – the World Bank (again), the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Development Fund – with a particular focus on the sectors of infrastructure, energy, water and mining.

The record of the European Investment Bank has been the subject of particular criticism on the grounds, amongst others, that it funds environmentally damaging projects in Africa and elsewhere. Some €12 billion of potential funding was identified in 11 different African countries.

In the foreword to this 2012 report, Joe Costello TD, Minister of State for Trade and Development, said that “The Embassy network across Africa will support Irish business”, a position reiterated by the Minister during trade missions to Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya in late 2013. The 2012 report recommended close cooperation between Irish companies and ventures such as the EU Water Initiative and the EU Raw Materials Initiative (intended to guarantee European access to vital inputs from around the world).

The promotion of European commercial interests?

Both these initiatives have been heavily criticised for reasons including the advancement of a water privatisation agenda that has not delivered improved access to water for recipients, and attempted prohibitions on the use, as development tools, by African governments of export taxes on raw materials. There is a strong argument that such EU initiatives are, hardly surprisingly, about the promotion of European commercial interests rather than the interests of African users of water or suppliers of raw materials.

To return to the opening question, “How can our foreign policy and economic diplomacy support [Irish] economic development and growth?” The answer is, in part, through the adoption of some of the policies advanced in the documents discussed above. But that is, again in part at least, at odds with “How… a commitment to international development [could] be better reflected across Ireland’s foreign policy”. Highlighting the incompatibility of these objectives should be a high priority for those making submissions to the current review process.

Andy Storey is a lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations, UCD, and chairperson of the NGO Action from Ireland (Afri,

Column: Our changing relationship with Africa is strong and enduring

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