http://www.ipsnews. net/news. asp?idnews= 46077
AUSTRALIA: African Resources Behind Growing Links
By Stephen de Tarczynski
Monday, March 16, 2009
MELBOURNE, Mar 12 (IPS) - With hundreds of Australian mining companies now involved in the extraction of natural resources in Africa, the Rudd government is also aiming to play a bigger role in the continent’s affairs. In a speech delivered to the executive council of the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia earlier this year, foreign minister Stephen Smith was forthright in proclaiming Australia’s intentions. "I have come to Addis Ababa...to convey to you personally the Australian government’s deep commitment and strong resolve to enhance Australia’s relationships with the nation-states and the continent of Africa," Smith told executive council ministers on Jan. 29. He added that hitherto, "Australia has not given Africa the priority it requires and deserves."
David Lucas, based at the Australian National University and president of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (ASAAP), says that Australia has indeed neglected Africa in the past. "Under the previous [conservative] government, I don’t think they were that enthusiastic about Africa," Lucas told IPS. The new importance placed on developing a closer relationship with Africa, however, appears to stem directly from the growth in Australian investment in sub-Saharan Africa’s resources sector over the last decade. The value of the current and prospective investment by the more than 300 Australian mining, oil and gas companies operating there - including BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner, which is active in Angola, Guinea, Mozambique and South Africa - is estimated to be worth some 20 billion US dollars. Overall, Australia’s recent trade growth with Africa - it has increased by more than ten percent per year on average since 2003 - is second only to the nation’s increased trade ties with Asia over the same period. And in order to augment this growing relationship, Australia is looking to boost its defence relations with the continent.
There are currently more than 30 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel in Sudan - eight peacekeepers are with the United Nations and African Union Mission (UNAMID) in Darfur and roughly 25 ADF members are working as military observers and logistical support staff with the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) - and the government is keen to build on that.
"The Australian government feels that it is time to strengthen our engagement with Africa and the African Union in the fields of peace and security," said defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon on a visit to Africa in February. Both Fitzgibbon and ADF chief Angus Houston had discussions with their African counterparts regarding new arrangements, which include the establishment of a resident Australian defence attaché to Africa as well as training courses available here for a number of AU-nominated officers. Fitzgibbon also said that later in 2009, "Australia will co-host a peacekeeping symposium in Africa with the African Union and the United Nations to allow for the exchange of experience and expertise." Furthermore, Australia is to increase its aid to Africa, despite maintaining a heavy slant towards the Asia-Pacific region.
In 2006, Australia’s bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) - aid provided to developing countries - to the continent was just four percent of the total available. But according to the government, what it refers as "development assistance" to Africa has increased by 23 percent since the Kevin Rudd-led Australian Labor Party was elected in November 2007.
A recent review of Australia’s aid programme by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted that Australia’s total ODA for 2008-2009 is Australian dollars 3.7 billion (2.4 billion US dollars) or around 0.32 percent of gross national income. And with Australia planning to increase the percentage allocated to aid over the coming years, Africa is set to benefit proportionately. "Africa will continue to benefit from our commitment to scale-up Australia’s aid program to 0.5 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product by 2015-2016," said Smith in January. However, Lucas warns that any talk of increased aid must be tempered by the economic crisis which has engulfed the world. "Because the government is committed to a target which is related to our gross national product, if our gross national product falls then the amount of money we’ll be committing to Africa will also fall," says the ASAAP president. Regardless, it is not only defence and aid - the purported benefits of "development assistance" are panned by Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo in her recently-released book, ‘Dead Aid’ - through which Australia is seeking to develop closer ties with Africa.
The government also wants to foster the growth of people-to-people ties, especially with increasing numbers of Africans migrating to Australia. "The strong people-to-people links which already exist…will help drive our relationship forward," Smith told AU leaders at the Addis Ababa meeting. Of the almost 150,000 people arriving to settle permanently here between July 2007 and June 2008, 10,600 were from sub-Saharan Africa - a further 8,300 people arrived from North Africa and the Middle East, for which the department of immigration’s figures do not make a distinction - representing 7.1 percent of all permanent settlers.
While these figures include Africans settling in Australia under the country’s humanitarian programme - more than 30,000 visas were issued to Africans under this stream between 2003 and 2007, and in the year to June 2008, nationals of Sudan, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Sierra Leone were numerically among the top ten recipients of humanitarian visas. There are also close to 9,000 African students studying here. Tredwell Lukondeh, the president of Australia’s Federation of African Communities Council - the peak national organisation for Africans in Australia - says that the increasing interpersonal ties between Africans and Australians make it imperative that the political relations are also close. But he describes Australia’s recent approach to Africa as "lukewarm," exemplified by its relative lack of diplomatic representation across the continent.
"For instance, I personally come from Zambia where we had an Australian [diplomatic] mission for many years, but which ceased to operate ten or fifteen years ago. And there hasn’t been one since, despite the fact that the area includes many countries whose nationals travel to Australia," Lukondeh told IPS.