Was the G20 Summit a “Win” for Africa?

Africa featured prominently on the agenda of the annual summit of the Group of Twenty (G20), held July 7–8 in Hamburg, Germany. Led by an initiative of the German chair, the heads of state of 20 of the world’s leading economies agreed on the establishment of a G20 Partnership with Africa. The partnership framework was drawn up with the participation of African states, offering the prospect of a more inclusive dialogue between the G20 and Africa in the future.

Q1: What is the history of the G20’s relationship with Africa?

A1: Created in 1999 as a forum to manage the global financial and economic system, the G20 initially brought together the finance ministers of the world’s 20 leading industrialized and emerging economies to promote financial stability. Since then, the G20 has been elevated to heads-of-state summit level and its scope has broadened beyond economic issues. Topic areas relevant to the African continent, such as food security, infrastructure, health, and migration, have regularly been placed on the G20 agenda, ensuring at least a partial representation of African interests at the forum. However, the G20 has not systematically engaged with Africa, with African voices being largely absent from the gatherings.

Africa featured on the agenda in 2010, when the G20 created a permanent Development Working Group and adopted the Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth, a framework for economic growth based on private-sector development and equal partnerships between low-income countries and donors. G20 interest in Africa increased in 2014, when the Ebola epidemic swept through West Africa. The G20 vowed “to build capacity to prevent, detect, report early and rapidly respond to infectious diseases like Ebola.” Other initiatives, such as the 2016 commitment to support industrialization in Africa, indicate increasing interest in the region.

Despite the growing attention to African issues at the G20, insufficient steps have been taken to integrate African viewpoints within the forum. South Africa is the only African country with a permanent seat at the table, and it can hardly speak for the entire continent. In an effort to include more African perspectives, observer status was granted to the chair of the African Union (AU) and a representative of the AU’s Heads of States and Government Coordination Committee of the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2010. However, their attendance is limited to the actual summits and does not extend to the preparatory meetings and working groups, where most of the substantive work is carried out.

Q2: What did the G20 offer Africa in 2017?

A2: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany made economic development in Africa one of the priority themes of the summit and succeeded in generating momentum on the issue during the run-up to the Hamburg gathering. At the core of the G20 Partnership with Africa lies the Compact with Africa (CWA) initiative, which focuses on attracting more private investment to Africa, especially for infrastructure projects. The rationale is that more investment will stimulate job creation and economic growth. Under the CWA, African countries that take steps to improve the business environment in their countries are provided with technical and financial assistance.

The push for a new economic policy in Africa has been given extra momentum by the G20’s increasing strategic and security interests in Africa. The idea that engagement in Africa is driven by little more than altruism has given way to a more hard-headed approach as security and diplomatic stakes in the continent have risen. By openly framing the CWA as part of an initiative to relieve the flow of refugees into Europe, German politicians seem to have realized that improving living conditions for Africans in their home countries is not merely a value-driven exercise but also serves Europe’s geostrategic interests. Other G20 members with important stakes in Africa—including China, Turkey, and India—benefit from this shift in emphasis. None of these countries pursues a values-driven foreign policy, predominantly viewing Africa as a business opportunity. The CWA’s focus on improving investment climates could ultimately benefit strategies such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The CWA has received mixed reviews from African and non-African stakeholders alike. While President Jacob Zuma of South Africa believed that the CWA would serve his country’s national interest, the AU representative, President Alpha Condé of Guinea, made it clear that African countries “do not want to be beggars opening [their] hands and asking for money.” Another complaint was that the compact is light on detail; for example, it does not explain how countries are supposed to attract private investments, especially the least developed and most poorly governed. Some have criticized the CWA’s focus on large physical infrastructure over investments in human capital through education.

While the content of the proposed partnership has sparked mixed reactions, its format sets the stage for continuous cooperation between the G20 states and African countries. By proposing conditional, bilateral partnerships, the CWA offers a framework for holding African governments to their promises and incentivizing reforms, thereby laying the groundwork for institutionalized, sustained partnerships between G20 countries and their partners in Africa.

The German government deserves credit for embracing African input in the drafting process of the compact. The CWA was authored by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of Germany, in cooperation with the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Prior to officially launching the G20 Africa Partnership, Germany hosted a G20 conference on Africa in June. The seven countries the German government agreed to compacts with—Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and Tunisia—were present at the conference, as were regional organizations and potential investors. By inviting a broad range of stakeholders, the German hosts created a forum to discuss prospects for and obstacles to investment and employment on the continent in a “spirit of partnership,” as Chancellor Merkel stressed.

Q3: Where does the United States stand in the process?

A3: The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord overshadowed the G20 discussions and relegated the Partnership with Africa to a spot lower down the agenda. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that President Trump has a personal interest in Africa. During a working session on Africa, the president left the meeting to continue one-on-one discussions, leaving his daughter, Ivanka, to represent him during the G20 high-level “Partnership with Africa, Migration and Health” session. In the only Africa-related announcement of note by the United States, President Trump declared that the United States would give $638 million in aid to relieve the humanitarian crisis in three African states—Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan—and in Yemen. While the UN World Food Program called the money a “life-saving gift,” the Washington-based Christian organization Bread for the World claimed that the aid had been approved by Congress several months previously and its release has been delayed by the administration.

Despite these unpromising signs, there may be aspects of the CWA approach that appeal to an administration that seems to favor bilateral, transactional exchanges over multilateral approaches. Furthermore, the CWA places the onus on African nations to undergo reforms in return for partnership, an emphasis that might resonate with a president that has expressed skepticism about the value of foreign assistance to the United States.

Richard Downie is a fellow and acting director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Katrin Heger is a research intern with the CSIS Africa Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Photo credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Katrin Heger

Richard Downie