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One-quarter of the world’s states are African and can contribute to international relations theory and practice as the North enters a period of ambivalence and begins to retreat from positive global engagement. Each actor based in or concerned about the African continent, state and non-state alike, advances a foreign policy to reflect its interests, often in coalition with others. East-South relations and a non-Western world, as well as Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa, are important in international development and emerging powers in Africa. The diversion away from international order and peace of the United States under President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Theresa May, and the European Union, the latter characterized by unanticipated immigration and endless Eurozone crises, can be positive for African agency and development if the continent can seize the unprecedented space to advance its own developmental states and regionalisms. Such possibilities of Africa’s enhanced prospects are situated in terms of a changing global political economy in which new economies, companies, and technologies are emerging along with contrary, nontraditional security threats. In response, novel forms of transnational “network” governance are being conceived and charted to advance sustainable developmental states and regionalisms through innovative foreign policy stances outside established, but increasingly dysfunctional and ossified, interstate institutions.

Article

China’s economic impact on Africa in the 21st century has been enormous. China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009 and has subsequently widened the gap with Africa’s second largest trading partner. China is Africa’s largest bilateral source of loans and an important provider of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)-equivalent aid, although well behind the European Union and the United States. Annual foreign direct investment flows by Chinese companies are growing and are now in the same league as companies from other major investing nations. Increasingly, African leaders are focusing their economic relationships on China and, because of China’s economic success, some of them are also looking to China as an economic and political model. The future in Africa of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the use of the renminbi (RMB) as an international currency are less clear. China’s influence on African economies comes with challenges. China has developed a significant trade surplus with Africa. Although resource-rich African countries have sizable trade surpluses with China, most African countries, especially the resource-poor ones, have trade deficits, some of which are huge. The influx of inexpensive Chinese products is also stifling Africa’s ability to produce similar goods. African governments welcome Chinese loans, which are usually used for infrastructure projects, but there are signs these loans are contributing to a debt problem in an increasing number of countries. Most Chinese aid to Africa consists of the concessionary component of these loans. Small Chinese traders have flocked to Africa, competing head-to-head with African counterparts. This has led to growing antagonism with African market traders, although African consumers welcome the competition. While Western countries collectively are much more important to African economies than is China, Beijing has become the single most important bilateral economic partner in a number of countries and is challenging the United States and Europe for economic leadership across the continent. China’s most significant competition in the coming years may be less from the United States and other Western and Western-affiliated countries such as Japan and more from developing countries such as India, Brazil, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Indonesia.

Article

Recent discoveries of oil in some African countries have rekindled a debate about its place in development and international politics. The debate has pitched those viewing oil as a catalyst for development and a more assertive Africa in global politics against others who point to the negative impact of oil on older established African oil-producing states. Oil as a highly priced geopolitical and strategic commodity will for the foreseeable future shape relations between African petro-states and other global actors, particularly international oil companies and energy-dependent established and emerging global powers. The structural position of specific African petro-states in the global political economy and history, and the nature of their leadership, are defining factors in the diverse aspects of local and international politics, including the prospects for development and a more assertive Africa in international politics.

Article

International Relations theory has tended to overlook the role of Africa and Africans in the international system. Traditionally, the discipline’s most influential theorists have focused instead on relationships between and perspectives of “major powers.” A growing body of work, however, has challenged these more limited efforts to conceptualize African agency in international politics. This scholarship has emphasized the significant space available to, and carved-out by, African states in molding the agendas of international institutions, and the role of African governments and advocacy networks in influencing the trajectory of major international debates around issues such as aid, development, trade, climate change, and migration. The study of African agency in international politics continues to wrestle with two key debates: the meanings of “agency” and “African.” Much of the literature focuses primarily on the role and influence of African states rather than that of African citizens and communities. This focus provides, at best, only a partial and qualified view of the ways in which African agency is secured and exercised at the global level, particularly given the significant structural constraints imposed on Africa by global economic and political inequalities. The extent to which contemporary analysis captures the breadth of African engagement with the international system is also compromised by current state-centric approaches. It is thus necessary to examine a range of approaches adopted by scholars to deepen and nuance the study of African agency in international politics, including work on agenda-setting, mesolevel dynamics and microlevel dynamics.

Article

In a seemingly virtual era, maritime commerce and shipping retain a central role in contemporary global capitalism. Approximately 90% of global imports and exports currently travel by sea on around 93,000 merchant vessels, carrying almost 6 billion tons of cargo. Oceanic mobility and long-distance networks of trade are made possible and sustained by the life and labor of over 1.25 million seafarers currently working at sea as well as regimes of global security and governance. Yet, this oceanic world and its role in shaping politics, sociality, and regulation remains, for the most part, obscured and hidden out of sight in everyday life. As one of the oldest perils at sea, maritime piracy is not only a daily threat to seafaring and global shipping but makes visible this oceanic world and the larger networks of security and regulation that govern maritime commerce. In recent years, coastal Africa, specifically the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, has seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of maritime piracy. The geopolitical and global trade importance of these areas has led to numerous national, regional, and international military and legal responses to combat this problem. While often seen as a seaborne symptom of failed states or criminality, maritime piracy has a more complex relationship with land- and sea-based governance. Occurring primarily in spaces that are politically fragmented but reasonably stable maritime piracy is better understood as a practice of extraction and claim making on mobility that emerges from deeper historical contexts and is linked to land-based economies and politics. Emphasizing maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea within these wider historical and geographic contexts highlights the imbrication of the political and economic in shaping the emergence and transformations of this practice. This is not to deny the violence that constitutes maritime piracy, but to locate piracy within larger processes of mobility, governance, and political economy on the African continent and beyond. In addition to impacting local communities, seafarers, and global shipping, maritime piracy is key to apprehending challenges to global governance from the vantage point of the world’s oceans.

Article

The currently extensive land appropriation across Africa signals the most radical shift in the distribution and tenure status of land since colonial times. The first alarms about “land grabs” by foreigners were raised by advocacy groups around 2007–2008. The search for land, always watered land, by foreign agents is driven by concerns about rising food and oil prices, and most of the acquired land is put under food crops, biofuels, and flex crops. The promises of profits from the exceedingly low price of land across Africa, as well as the rising demand for the mentioned crops, have also attracted speculation by private equity funds. With more detailed research on the processes and effects of this shift in rights to (and use of) land, the focus on a “new scramble” by foreign agents has extended to the multiple processes involved in the increasing demand for Africa’s land, internally and externally. The increase in acquisition of land by international agents, not only for cultivation but for minerals, oil, timber, and so forth, exacerbates the accelerating demand for land within African countries by nationals such as salaried, middle-class people and politicians acquiring land for cultivation and for an investment fast increasing in value. The millions of small-scale users of largely “customary” land struggle to derive a livelihood from their smallholdings and access to dwindling and increasingly enclosed common land, including grazing and watering areas. These linkages among local, national, and global dynamics of land acquisition reveal mounting socioeconomic and political inequality across Africa. In addition, research on the land rush reveals competing visions for African agriculture, invoking the debate of large- versus small-scale agricultural futures, a long-standing question of agrarian studies now being asked within much changed political-economic, social, and environmental conditions. Both macro-data and field studies show that most of the foreign acquired land is used for large-scale plantations, some of which include contract farming and outgrower schemes. Although, for a variety of reasons, some large land deals fold, the most recent Land Matrix data show most do move into production. Research on these large-scale projects has shown, however, that most fail to attain the projected aims of providing benefits to the countries and people from which they acquired the land. Most appropriated land was already in productive use by local users rather than “under-utilized” or “waste land” as described in many documents by investors and donors such as the World Bank; there were fewer benefits in the form of employment, higher and sustained income, and lower risk for most laborers, contract farmers, and outgrowers; far less infrastructure (schools, clinics, roads, etc.) built, as promised, for local populations; and output that is either exported or that proves unsuitable for the locales, with lower production value at lower efficiency compared with the land uses before the large-scale projects were put in place. These negative findings have to be set alongside the facts that the investors acquire the land at either extremely low cost (usually lease rather than sale) or even free, and receive tax, import/export and other “incentives.” The failure to benefit the millions of small- to medium-scale users of land, despite the rhetoric of land investors, major donors such as the finance arms of the World Bank Group, and governments facilitating the deals, has emerged as a key problem in light of deepening poverty, and a dearth of sufficient employment to absorb the young population, let alone people “exiting” from the land. Numerous experts conclude that a continued rapid alienation of land, especially to large-scale investors, will exacerbate localized land scarcity, restrict the potential of smallholder-led development, and put unrealistic pressure on the non-farm economy to absorb Africa’s rapidly rising labor force.

Article

Bas Hooijmaaijers and Stephan Keukeleire

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) have, since the beginning of the 21st century, gained greater influence in global political and economic affairs and, since 2006, also steadily developed and increased their political dialogue and cooperation. South Africa joining the BRICS political grouping in 2011 was matched by a strengthening of the BRICS dialogue. This was reflected in the broadening range of issues covered, the increasing level of specificity of the BRICS joint declarations and cooperation, and the institutionalization of BRICS cooperation in various policy fields, including the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB). Notwithstanding the increased interaction between the BRICS states on the various political, economic, and diplomatic levels, the countries differ considerably in their political, economic, military, and demographic weight and interests and in their regional and global aspirations. China particularly stands out among the BRICS due to its political and economic weight. There are sufficient reasons to question the significance and impact of the BRICS format. Still, the BRICS countries have found each other in their commitment to counter the “unjust” Western-dominated multilateral world in which they are generally underrepresented. The EU did not develop a “BRICS policy” as such, which is understandable given the major differences between the BRICS countries and the ambiguous nature of the BRICS format. To deal with the various emerging powers and complement its predominantly regional partnerships, the EU instead institutionalized and deepened the political and economic bilateral relations with each of the BRICS countries, including through the objective of establishing a bilateral “strategic partnership” with each of these countries. However, the analysis of the EU’s relationship with the BRICS countries indicates that the label “strategic partnerships” mainly served as a rhetorical façade which belied that the EU failed to turn these relationships into real strategic partnerships and to behave strategically toward the BRICS countries. Another challenge for the EU appears when analyzing the BRICS within the broader context of various emerging power constellations and multilateral frameworks, including variations of the BRICS format (such as BRICS Plus, BASIC, and IBSA), multilateral frameworks with one or more BRICS countries at their center (such as the SCO, EAEU, and BRI), and regional forums launched by China. Taken together, they point to an increasingly dense set of partially overlapping formal and informal networks on all political, diplomatic, and administrative levels, covering an ever-wider scope of policy areas and providing opportunities for debate, consultation, and coordination. Whereas most of these forums are in and of themselves not very influential, taken together they have an impact on the EU and its traditional view on multilateralism in several ways. Seen from this perspective, the BRICS and other multilateral forums pose major challenges for both European diplomats and European scholars. They will have to make considerable efforts to understand and engage with these various forums, which are manifestations of an increasingly influential and powerful non-Western world wherein the role of Europe is much more limited.

Article

Africa turned the corner of marginalization in international affairs at the beginning of the 21st century. The end of the Cold War and global shifts in power toward the end of the previous century were closely followed by “Africa rising.” This contrasted previous decades-long narratives of a hopeless, war-ravaged, and plague-ridden continent. The Africa rising mantra followed reforms implemented in the late 1980s and early 1990s that improved institutional capacities and established African countries on firm business, economic, and political trajectories. This promised improved business environment, economic vitality, and positive democratic outlook. Africa has thus become important to major powers. They court it for its support to govern challenges that necessitate international cooperation and to enhance the major powers’ influence in global institutions and on the world. Rising Asian economies such as China and India compete for Africa’s natural resources against traditional global powers like the European Union (EU). The EU has long been economically and politically involved with Africa and has generally dominated these relations. Leading theories, discussions, and research that examine the historic, economic, and geopolitical factors at play in the evolution of African Union (AU)-EU relations suggest that elements of dependency are a calculated creation of colonialism and encounters that occurred between Africa and Europe before the advent of colonialism. Dependency continues to characterize these relations, as shown by formal AU-EU pacts. Decolonial scholars argue that the dependency is real, as Africa did not demolish colonial structures at independence. Some critical scholars further argue that the history of colonialism is also pertinent to the history of the EU in that the history of European integration was partly influenced by the history of colonialism. That is, the history of colonialism contributed to the political creation of the EU, and attempts by Western European countries to form a pan-European organization coincided with early 20th-century efforts to stabilize colonialism in Africa. The European countries could only efficiently exploit Africa by combining their political and economic capacities. AU-EU relations face many challenges in the 21st century. Influence in the relations is predominately unidirectional, with the EU determining the terms of engagement even on issues peculiar to Africa or the AU and where the latter appears to have the upper hand. The challenges show that the AU and EU are interdependent, but the onus is on the AU to set priorities right and enhance capabilities for engaging the EU. This would be easier if the EU were not continuously devising ways to maintain its dominance in the “partnership.” An overarching challenge in the partnership, therefore, is finding common ground and leveling the playing field.

Article

Although unionized workers have rarely represented more than a small minority of the population anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, trade unions have played, and continue to play, a significant political role. Trade unions still occupy strategic choke points in many African economies, particularly around transport infrastructure, and retain a spatially concentrated organizational base as well as a degree of symbolic power drawn from participation in struggles against colonialism, apartheid, and authoritarianism. Three persistent dilemmas have strongly shaped the role of African trade unions and driven much of the academic debate about them. First are debates about the relationships between trade unions and political parties. These date to the often-fraught relationships between unions and anti-colonial movements in the last years of colonial rule. Pitched struggles, both within trade unions and between unions and governing parties, were often fought in the decade after the end of formal colonization over the degree of autonomy that unions should have from governing parties. These were often resolved through the widespread repression of politically independent unionism in the 1970s. This relationship, however, became untenable under processes of structural adjustment, and unions have often played a significant role in protests against neoliberal reforms, which have spurred widespread political transformation. Second are debates about the relationships of trade unions to non-unionized workers, especially the unemployed or the “informal” sector. Critics on both left and right have long pointed to the relatively privileged position of trade unions. This has consistently been invoked by governments seeking to justify the limited political role of trade unions as well as policies for wage restraint, state retrenchment, or currency devaluation that have negatively affected organized labor. However, given the increasingly widespread nature of informality and unemployment in contemporary Africa, trade unions have begun to make tentative steps toward organizing informal and unemployed workers in some cases. Finally, the relationships of African unions to the international labor movement and to international organizations have often been important. African unions have frequently drawn on links to international trade unions, regional institutions, or the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a way of compensating for domestic weaknesses. These strategies, however, have often engendered significant conflicts around the differing objectives of African and metropolitan actors, between African unions over access to international resources, and concerning “imperialism” by American and European unions.

Article

In the era following the decolonization of Africa, the economic performance of countries on the continent can be traced across three periods. The early postindependence years reflected moderate growth and policy variation, with occasional distress in some countries. From the 1980s through the late 1990s, the region was gripped by a sweeping crisis of growth and solvency shaped by a steep economic downturn and a slow, stuttering recovery. This was also a period of convergence and restrictions on policy space. By the early 2000s, accelerated growth buoyed most economies in Africa, although commodity price shocks and the global economic slump of 2008–2009 created episodic problems. Different approaches to policy and strategy once again marked the landscape. A number of influences help to explain variations in the occurrence of economic crisis across Africa, and the different responses to economic distress. In addition to structural factors, such as geography, resource wealth, and colonial legacies, middle-range political conditions contributed to these downturns. Key institutions, core constituencies, and fiscal pressures were domestic causes and external factors include donor convergence, access to finance, and policy learning. One framework of analysis centers on three factors: ruling coalitions, the fiscal imperative, and policy space. The ruling coalition refers to the nature of the political regime and core support groups. The fiscal imperative refers to the nature of state finance and access to external resources. And the policy space comprises the range of strategic alternatives and the latitude for governments to make choices among broad policy options. Applying the framework to Africa’s economic performance, the first period was marked by distributional imperatives, a flexible fiscal regime, and considerable space for policy experimentation. During the long crisis, regimes came under pressure from external and domestic influences, and shifted toward a focus on macroeconomic stabilization. This occurred under a tight fiscal imperative and a contraction of policy space under the supervision of multilateral financial institutions. In the 2000s, governments reflected a greater balance between distributional and developmental goals, fiscal constraints were somewhat relaxed, and policy variation reappeared across the region. While the early 21st century has displayed signs of intermittent distress, Africa is not mired in a crisis comparable to those of earlier periods. Developmental imperatives and electoral accountability are increasingly influential in shaping economic strategy across the continent.

Article

The sovereignty of postcolonial African states is largely derived from their recognition by other states and by the United Nations, irrespective of their actual effectiveness. Such international legal sovereignty has been a resource to weak African states, allowing them to endure against the odds, and to their rulers who have instrumentalized it to foster their domestic authority and domination. Yet, African sovereignty has also been a curse. Being exogenous to domestic social and political relations, it tends to isolate and shield rulers from the ruled and predisposes state institutions toward predation. It also standardizes and homogenizes the continent’s institutional landscape in disregard to the wealth and promise of effective institutional arrangements on the ground, to which it denies legitimacy. Despite the equilibrium properties of the African sovereignty regime, there might be opportunities to tweak the system in ways that could unleash more effective and accountable state and nonstate institutions.

Article

Globalization, or increased interconnectedness between world regions, is a dialectical and recursive phenomenon that consequently tends to deepen through time as one set of flows sets off other related or counterflows. This is evident in the history of the phenomenon in Africa, where transcontinental trade, and later investment, were initially small but have grown through different rounds including slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, and the early 21st-century era of globalization. However, globalization on the continent, as in other places, is not unilinear and has generated a variety of “regional responses” in terms of the construction of organizations such as the African Union and other more popularly based associations. The phenomenon of globalization on the continent is deepening through the information technology “revolution,” which also creates new possibilities for regional forms of association.