African agency and influence in international affairs have been on the rise over the past decade, both at a continental level and bilaterally, growing together with improvements in peace and stability, development outcomes and governance capacity.
Africa was quick to mobilize for a response to COVID-19, weeks before it was declared a pandemic: the first meeting of health ministers regarding the coronavirus was held in February, before the continent’s first recorded case.
This was followed by finance ministers’ meetings – aided by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – to discuss the fiscal space to deal with the pandemic, coordinate a position in the G20 and create the African Union COVID-19 Response Fund.
Solidarity has been the watchword of African governments in their international messaging in relation to COVID-19: African leaders have been prominent among those calling for global leadership, collective political will and coordination through multilateral agencies.
This is because they know that however well they coordinate among themselves, their countries remain vulnerable to external shocks and the vagaries – and at times viciousness – of competition among more powerful nations.
What is more, the looming coronavirus-induced recession and the pandemic’s intensification of pre-existing challenges – relating to governance, development, conflict and the environment – are depleting Africa’s already stretched resources and capacity. Many were already battling domestic distraction and this is set to worsen.
Smarter collective bargaining
African governments will therefore need to be even smarter about exerting their influence – prioritizing, network-building, agenda-setting, innovating, problem-solving and ensuring interests are framed in terms of the collective rather than the bilateral.
For African countries to both recover and also achieve meaningful socio-economic transformation they will need to be able to influence global governance systems to shape rules and norms to their benefit.
If they do not work effectively through multilateral institutions their interests may be under- or misrepresented; if they act bilaterally they are less likely to effect long-term change in the imbalance of decision-making power.
Collective efforts already have a track record of success. Africa’s collective agency helped achieve a Common African Position (CAP) on the post-2015 Development Agenda – in particular on SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) – as well as the CAP that strengthened governments’ influence in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement.
African states have also worked with the OECD on profit shifting and tax avoidance and have coordinated inputs to the G20 via South Africa, the continent’s only G20 member.
As the co-chair of the G20 Development Working Group for 10 years, South Africa has been able to shape an action plan encompassing infrastructure, education, human resources, agriculture and trade – all issues crucial to Africa.
African actors have also been successful in shaping the agenda by focusing on issues where African interests overlap with those of other G20 countries. The April 2020 agreement by the G20 and the Paris Club on a debt moratorium for 77 of the world’s poorest countries is an example of such a confluence of interests, and one that may also generate positive ripple effects as China comes under growing pressure to provide debt relief and greater transparency on its lending.
The increasing visibility of African leaders and experts in international organizations has also served to bring African narratives and interests into the mainstream. Should Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the remaining African candidate, become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, the ‘glass ceiling’ on leading one of the world’s key economic organizations would be shattered.
Risks and opportunities of multipolarity
Global rivalries have intensified during the pandemic, threatening the collective influence of African countries in multilateral institutions and putting Africa at risk of being pulled into a tug-of-war between the US and China.
But emerging global multipolarity has also created opportunities, notably for African states to diversify their external relations. It is likely that smaller, emerging powers will share more of Africa’s perspectives and preoccupations than established donors and investors, perhaps offering more fruitful partnerships over time.
Some African countries will always be more susceptible to external persuasion and individual countries will inevitably pursue their own interests – it is near impossible to keep 55 countries to the same script. However, these are extraordinary times which offer a huge opportunity to drive sustainable international change.
African actors need to keep pushing for a seat at the table and a voice in shaping the agenda. The COVID-19 crisis will continue to erode resources and capacity, making coalition-building, coordination and a strategic division of labour among African states vital to avoid undermining of collective African agency.
This article is part of a series on African agency in international affairs.