China’s influence in Africa forcing the EU to pay more attention
Helsinki’s climate may be far from equatorial, but Finland’s interest in Africa is renewed under the administration of Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who came into office in December 2019.
As development cooperation and foreign trade minister Ville Skinnari says: “Finland has a very long-lasting relation with many, many African countries and governments.”
The country’s four-point cooperation agenda encompasses peace and security, trade and the economy, climate and natural resources, and education and expertise.
The economic imperative has changed with the rise of China. “When it comes to infrastructure and the construction sector, Finnish industries were there in Africa for decades,” says Skinnari.
Now, service-sector companies such as Nokia are building telecoms networks that prefigure a future move to 5G and other projects.
While China has large advantages in vendor finance – bringing the ability both to fund and build a road, for example – Skinnari argues that European countries have some cards to play, both in terms of Europe’s federal strength and in refocusing towards areas where there are more advantages.
“It’s true that the projects can be very big – they are huge – but this is the whole idea of ‘team Europe’, that we act together. Together [EU countries] can also provide sufficient results when it comes to financing, but Finland can really show and pave the way for sustainable and smart energy solutions, energy efficiency and the circular economy. With our technology, African countries can get rid of coal, which is a major milestone for climate change.”
Finland is also interested in expanding its diplomatic reach to parts of the continent where it has historically been less present.
“For the first time ever we will go to the French-speaking part of Africa. We’ve been working on this a lot, and I’m really proud that we can open up a new site for Finland in this part of the world,” says Skinnari.
While the minister remains discreet on the specific countries for now, it is believed a new embassy will be opened in West Africa. One priority for the administration is how to offer meaningful responses to the youth challenge – and potential – in Africa: “The next generation is really an emphasis for us, and we know that it’s also the emphasis for the European Union and the current commissioner Jutta Urpilainen […] how we really support the youth, in employment, but also vocational training,” says Skinnari.
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He also points to Finnish support for NGOs involved in family planning. “Finland is one of the key players when it comes to gender questions, the rights of women and girls.”
Skinnari applauds the continent’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and argues that African countries can use it as a pivot point. “I think when we look at the resilience of Africa, when we look at the resilience in the social and healthcare sector, food sector, education sector – which are all important – I think it’s also a window of opportunity for change.”
This article is available as part of the print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Africa in 2021 – Who will be the winners and losers of the post-Covid era?’