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Africa is open for business, but where's Australia?

By Anthony Bergin

It will be unfortunate if the single-minded focus on the rivers of gold in the Asian Century White Paper results in Australia neglecting Africa.

Africa's now moving towards prosperity. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that seven of the world's top ten performing economies between 2011 and 2015 will be in Africa.

But we're not giving it the attention it deserves. Prime Minister Gillard knocked back the honour of a starring role at the top-level African Union summit in Malawi mid year, and hasn't displayed much enthusiasm for the continent.

Democracy is now the norm in Africa. While there's terrorism, poor governance and transnational crime there, the continent is booming.

Africa isn't so much interested in our charity, but our investment. Fortunately Australian resource companies are engaged. They've moved away from viewing the continent through a development aid prism.

Australian companies having an estimated current and prospective investment of more than $20 billion in Africa. Forty per cent of all Australian mining projects overseas are in Africa. More than 200 Australian resource companies have nearly 650 projects spread across 42 African countries.

The Gillard government's Mining for Development Initiative is helpful. Australia is drawing on its mining expertise to help several African states in areas such as mine safety, mining regulation and geosciences. We've also increased our diplomatic footprint in Africa and opened an embassy in Ethiopia and we will open one soon in Senegal.

But generally we've overlooked Africa's significance. With the Asian Century mantra, Africa now risks being side-lined in our international policies.

Africa, growing in confidence, has a lot to teach the rest of the world. The key issues fifteen years ago included HIV/Aids, elections, development assistance and the role of the military in politics.

Now the big African issues are growth and how the benefits of growth can be distributed, China's investment in resources, regional integration, infrastructure deficits, agriculture development, communications technology, and regional integration.

While there's conflicts in places like Somalia and Mali, there's more discussion about those factors that have strategic impacts on conflict, such as access to water.

Africa wants to be a global player. Our relationship with Africa can play back into our interests with India, China, and with Asia more broadly. Our membership on the UN Security Council presents a strategic opportunity for Australia to develop relationships with the continent.

While we've contributed successfully to peacekeeping operations on the continent, we should contribute more to the training and development of African armed forces. Capacity building of that sort will help the continent to handle its own security challenges, and presents Australia as a committed and useful friend.

But Africa's the continent about which Australia knows the least. That should change. We should get together to talk about the big strategic issues that affect the two continents.

We're in a unique position with Africa because we don't carry any baggage of the colonial past. We need to boost and coordinate our economic and political efforts toward Africa.

It's the African century, as well as the Asian century.

Anthony Bergin is Deputy Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published by: The Australian on 28 Nov 2012