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Hannibal: Portuguese lessons for Africa’s bank

Posted on Monday, 8 August 2011 15:48

What can African learn from a creaking Europe? Hannibal looked on at the recent African Development Bank meeting in Lisbon.

Why Portugal? Why now? Those were the common refrains among bankers and officials headed for Lisbon for the African Development Bank (AfDB)’s annual meeting on 10-11 June. Behind the questions lurked some scepticism about what Portugal – one of Europe’s earliest colonising powers – could possibly teach Africa in the 21st century.

The economic points were obvious enough. Portugal is a member of the so-called group of PIGS in Europe – that is, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – desperately seeking to resuscitate their economies beset with ballooning budget deficits and dangerously high inflation. Mediterranean Europe’s travails are about big-picture macroeconomics, AfDB president Donald Kaberuka told The Africa Report in Lisbon, whereas Africa’s concerns are increasingly about microeconomics: focusing on agricultural productivity, small business and widening the access to education and training.

Just days before the AfDB caravan arrived in Lisbon, Portugal held its legislative elections. Out went José Sócrates and his Socialist Party, who had to drink the political equivalent of hemlock and call an election after opposition parties rejected the government’s austerity budget. There had been angry talk of a default in Lisbon, of Portugal following in the footsteps of Greece – the other sick man of the eurozone – with swingeing cuts sparking mass protests and running battles in the streets. Weeks earlier, demonstrators had converged on the main square in Madrid, turning it into a Spanish variant of Egypt’s Midan al-Tahrir.

So the frailties of Europe’s economies – although those of France and Germany remain relatively resilient – were on open display for delegates to the AfDB summit. It was a sharp contrast to the Bank’s previous meeting outside Africa – in Shanghai in 2007 – where many delegates left the gleaming Chinese citadel with a sense that this was where the world was going, and that Africa’s economic future would ineluctably be tied to the rise and rise of China.

That perception is clearer still today, but with some qualifiers. Although China is becoming the dominant global economic power – its gross domestic product is due to exceed that of the USA in five years, according to the IMF – the accompanying rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and a resurgent Russia is as important. It is how Africa navigates that new economic geography that will shape its development prospects, as the AfDB’s research on Africa’s ’emerging partners’ clearly demonstrates. Over the past decade, trade with emerging economies has grown from 23% to 39%, as a percentage of all Africa’s trade.

That means the African marketplace has never been more competitive. Portugal and its European neighbours are getting the message. Outside Angola’s embassy in Lisbon, the queue for visas is far longer, Angolan friends assure me, than that outside the Portuguese embassy in Luanda.

As Portugal struggles for market share in its former imperial domain – Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde – Washington sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a tour in early June to convince African countries that the terms of trade with the USA would be better than with China. Much will depend on how well Africa negotiates this global courtship. Portugal and the rest of ‘Old Europe’ are still umbilically linked to Africa – albeit in a way that often seems more ‘tired marriage’ than dynamic partnership.

As delegates to the AfDB trooped into the conference centre in Lisbon, they looked up to see the Ponte 25 de Abril, a massive suspension bridge across the bay, named after the Portuguese revolution of 1974. Then, sickened by the brutality of its colonial wars in Africa, Portugal’s soldiers had turned on their generals and ended decades of fascist rule, radically changing both Europe and Africa in the process. This year, the revolutionaries are on the other side of the Mediterranean, but we still need a radical change in Europe-Africa relations if the two continents are to pursue a better future together.

This article was first published in the July 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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