ASTANA – More than 20 permanent representatives to the United Nations (UN) from Africa arrived recently from New York to discuss cooperation between Kazakhstan and African states at a special session of the Astana Economic Forum.
The meeting on May 21, titled “Africa – the Next Driver of the Global Economy,” was moderated by Kazakh ambassador and permanent UN representative Kairat Abdrakhmanov and included questions on the so-called “south-south” partnerships and new Kazakh initiatives in the continent.
“Africa is something new for Kazakhstan. We knew about Africa from schools, but we didn’t have much of a relationship,” said Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov in his welcoming speech. “There is no one to blame for that. Your focus was on your development and we came from the same challenges of independence emergence.”
The minister reviewed the history of Kazakhstan’s relations with African nations, starting with the opening of the first Kazakh embassy in Cairo in the early 1990s. He admitted that one mission was not enough to cover the whole of the continent.
“A few years ago we started turning a keen eye on Africa. We believe it is a historic time when Africa should receive a full focus,” added Idrissov. “We recognise that Africa is a continent with huge potential. It has enormous human capital and a large, young population. Everything depends on people, especially investment in people.”
The next Kazakh embassies were opened in Pretoria, South Africa in 2013 and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2014. The former was chosen for its convenient location to uphold diplomatic relations in the sub-region, while the latter was selected because Ethiopia’s potential and because it is also the seat of the African Union.
Idrissov reminded the delegates of Kazakhstan-financed educational courses offered to students from the African continent that will start in June. The groups will study in the fields of energy, medicine and agriculture.
Speaking specifically about EXPO 2017, he announced that Kazakhstan was supporting developing countries in their participation.
“EXPO should not only be for developed countries,” he said. Earlier Kazakhstan announced it will provide support for the participation of 60 developing nations in EXPO 2017, as per the requirements of the Bureau International des Expositions, which administers the expositions.
Idrissov further noted Kazakhstan is also part of a group working on UN reform and added that Kazakhstan believes Africa deserves the right to be fully represented at the Security Council. Africa does have two slots for non-permanent members in the body, and Idrissov meant Kazakhstan supports allocating one permanent seat to the continent as part of the UN reform, a statement which drew applause from the audience.
In addition, Kazakhstan has trained a peace-keeping force ready to help in Africa’s conflict-struck areas. The minister noted the nation is awaiting laws that will regulate KazBat [Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion] deployment in foreign countries.
“We are both emerging entities. We want to join global efforts to support African growth in all aspects of life. Our plan is to gradually move and develop our physical presence in Africa,” he added.
UN Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark, who served for nine years as prime minister of New Zealand, was introduced to the delegates as “the first lady of development.” She highlighted Kazakhstan and African countries could be key south-south partners.
“Sharing fresh experience of nation building and challenging head-on the landlockedness” could be some of the issues uniting the geographically-dispersed states, she explained.
“We are pleased to be part of the training programme this summer,” Clark added.
UN Under-Secretary-General Maged Abdelaziz, another distinguished session panelist, announced that on average, economies in African countries were rising 4.6 percent in 2015.
“On the social front there is less and less poverty,” he said. “Most are on track on poverty reduction and primary education enrollment.”
The Egyptian UN official suggested less dependence on commodities would result in the countries being less vulnerable to external shocks.
“Africa is doing its homework and trying to become a real force. As Kazakhstan is transforming itself in the 2050 programme, the continent has its own 2063 agenda. Both have similar focus on industrialisation and diversification,” said Abdelaziz.
UN Deputy Executive Secretary of the European Economic Commission in Africa Abdalla Hamdok noted he hopes a session focusing on Africa will become a tradition in subsequent forums.
“The African growth story is impressive; the narrative is real,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, ‘The Economist’ called Africa a hopeless continent; ten years later, the same publication calls it an emergent Africa.”
Part of the reason for such reversal in perception is effective demand, the youth bulge and a growing middle class.
“The hopelessness is behind us,” said Hamdok. “Africa is now thinking of its destiny and taking charge of its development. We welcome partnerships old and new. Kazakhstan does not only represent a new force but emulates our future.”
Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Christine Beerli focused on more controversial facts surrounding the African continent, citing the examples of Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and northern Nigeria.
“As humanitarians, we tend to see Africa through conflict,” she said. “From 150 years of working, we know conflict is driven by poverty. We know that in a humanitarian crisis the infrastructure and society suffer worst.”
“Africa is a continent of potential and economic growth. Yet across the continent we see the danger of conflict,” Beerli added.
Other panelists included BRICS Sous Sherpa and Deputy Director General of the Asia and Middle East Branch of the South Africa Department of International Relations and Cooperation Dr. Anil Sooklal, Chief Executive Officer of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Agency Ibrahim Mayaki and Benin Ambassador in the Russian Federation Gabriel Anicet Kotchofa, who impressed the audience with his flowery Russian and vivid praise for Kazakhstan’s potential to contribute to Africa’s growth.