Africa: an increasingly powerful post-2015 player?

Development Policy23 Apr 2014Saskia Hollander

The common African post-2015 position and the continent’s role in the negotiations

In the past few years, Africa’s economic self-confidence on the global stage has grown. A number of African countries are experiencing remarkable levels of economic growth and – due to newly established partnerships with emerging economies like China, Brazil and India – have become less dependent on traditional aid flows from the North. The continent’s increased economic self-assurance resonates in the post-2015 process, where African countries form a strong alliance with other developing countries in the G77. Africa’s successful effort to draft a common post-2015 strategy once more underscores its footprint in the post-2015 process. The question however remains whether, in the coming period, internal differences and diversity will throw a spanner in the works.1

The process of formulating the MDGs has been widely criticized for being a donor-oriented and donor-led exercise, characterized by a lack of voice and ownership by developing countries. To get their voice heard and integrated in the formulation of the post-2015 development agenda, African countries recently tried to close ranks and have presented a Common African Position (CAP), launched in March this year. With the aim of strengthening African countries’ bargaining position both in the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in the international negotiations starting in September this year, the CAP marks a changed relationship between the North and the South and Africa’s increased self-confidence in a changed global context.

Redefining old relations

Africa is no longer seen as a ‘lost’ continent, and despite cross-country variation, many countries, such as Nigeria and Angola, are doing remarkably well in terms of GDP growth. The continent’s exclusive dependency on the North, in terms of aid and trade, is eroding as emerging powers like China, Brazil and India increasingly have a finger in the pie.

In this context, it is not surprising that a revitalization and redefinition of the EU-Africa relationship was once again the main objective of the fourth EU-Africa summit held on 2-3 April. While Africa-EU relations are still of vital importance for the continent, the objective of moving from a donor-recipient relationship to one based on equal partnership, is clearly overshadowed by African criticism on EU sanctions and conditionality, and ongoing disagreements over the signing of the European Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). With more partners to choose from in the global arena, Africa is likely to see its bargaining power in international negotiations becoming enhanced.

The end of business as usual

Africa’s increased self-confidence also marks its role in the post-2015 process. Business as usual, whereby goals and targets are simply devised for developing countries, can no longer be the point of departure. The African Union (AU) has urged its member states to use the CAP as a negotiation instrument, enabling Africa to play a pro-active role, and to prevent its ambitions from being swallowed up by the traditional players. Africa asserts that it knows what is good for the continent, and no longer accepts that the advanced countries dictate its development path. In this, it surely sees its bargaining power strengthened by last year’s report of the High Level Panel (HLP), which already formulated a vision similar to the African post-2015 strategy, and the OWG’s focus area document, launched in February this year, which largely reflects the priorities outlined in the CAP. Also important in this respect is the fact that a significant number of post-2015 positions are held by African officials: the HLP was co-chaired by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the OWG is co-chaired by Kenyan Permanent Representative Macharia Kamau, and the Experts Committee on Sustainable Development Financing is co-chaired by Nigerian Mansur Muhtar.

A joint African strategy

However, despite African countries’ assessment of the strategic value of adopting a common position, drafting the CAP has proven a daunting task, given the wide variety of nations that make up the African continent. The process of formulating the CAP started relatively late. During the 21st AU Summit in Ethiopia in May 2013, the AU established a High Level Committee (HLC), consisting of 10 heads of state2, and chaired by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The HLC was mandated to finalize a demand-driven joint African post-2015 perspective and to build regional and intercontinental alliances around it. In drafting the CAP, the HLC committed itself to include the outcomes of the various national, regional and continental consultations held in Africa.3 Eight months later, at the 22nd AU Summit in January 2014, the CAP was adopted by the AU General Assembly and the final text was launched at the end of March. The CAP consists of six pillars on which the SDGs should be built:

  1. Structural economic transformation and inclusive growth
  2. Science, technology and innovation
  3. People-centred development
  4. Environmental sustainability, natural resource management, and disaster risk management
  5. Peace & security
  6. Finance and partnership

While the final text of the CAP does further specify these pillars, it remains unclear how the AU would like to see them translated into specific goals and targets.4

Structural economic transformation

Most emphasis is placed on a structural transformation of Africa’s economic development model, marked as top priority in the CAP. In several OWG-sessions, the African Group has also proposed a stand-alone goal on structural economic transformation, which should include sustained economic and inclusive growth, sustainable agriculture, industrialization and value addition to export commodities, employment and decent jobs, infrastructure and energy. Promoting such a fundamental change in the structure of African economies is part of a broader AU long-term strategy as exposed in its Agenda 2063, and endorsed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Quarrels over peace and security

One of the more contentious areas was the peace & security pillar. This was only added to the CAP during a closed HLC session on 28 February in Chad, after the AU General Assembly had explicitly requested the HLC to add this pillar to the framework during the AU Summit in January 2014. Initially, the HLC was of the opinion that peace and security did not come out of the regional consultations as a key priority to be framed as a development pillar, but as a development enabler. Moreover, the issue was mainly pushed by Liberia (chair of the HLC) and African civil society. The AfDB is also said to have played an important part in this, as it recently launched a report in which the importance of building peace and security is recognized as a ‘precondition for progress in other areas’.

This pillar thus marks the likely fragile character of the joint African vision, since African countries largely disagree on its significance and interpretation. This is for example exposed in the draft expert report of the regional consultations where peace and security was ranked as the highest priority by the Central African region, but only the fourth (out of four) priority for North Africa, eighth out of ten for West Africa, and not mentioned at all as a priority by East Africa and the Southern African region. Despite being added as a pillar to the CAP, some countries fear that a focus on security and the rule of law will make the agenda too exhaustive and will divert attention away from conventional economic development priorities.5 Other countries, especially in Northern Africa, perceive the inclusion of peace and security as an agenda of the West, and fear a punitive and securitized approach. In the OWG, this has led Egypt to explicitly argue against incorporating the issue in the post-2015 agenda. Moreover, sensitivities are further fed by ongoing debates about the International Criminal Court, which are causing fractures not only in Africa-EU relations, but also between African countries themselves.

Moreover, the precise definition of peace and security remains largely unclear. The CAP upholds a broad interpretation by only mentioning conflict-prevention measures, likely due to disagreements on a more holistic approach that includes issues like human rights and the rule of law. Such disagreements are revealed in the country interventions in the OWG, where the importance of peace and security was stressed by Benin, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia, but with slightly various meanings.6 While South Africa emphasized human rights and the rule of law, Uganda and Rwanda mainly discussed the conflict-prevention and resolution aspects of the issue.

Dominant players

It thus remains to be seen to what extent Africa will be able to present itself as one bloc during the negotiations. Overall consensus on the priorities might well mask cross-country differences when the pillars are to be translated into specific goals and targets. The likelihood of this scenario is strengthened by the observation that in many African countries, due to a lack of financial and human resources, there is still a lack of awareness of and involvement in the post-2015 process. Except for the foreign affairs departments, other relevant departments, such as those dealing with social and economic affairs, have not yet been sufficiently involved in the process. Moreover, relatively powerful African countries, especially those represented in the HLC, played a dominant role in the process of drafting and adopting the CAP. The AfDB and specific thematic departments of the AU Commission, in particular Economic Affairs, Trade and Industry and Infrastructure, are also said to have left their mark on the content of the CAP, as can be seen from the priority given to trade and infrastructure. Now that the CAP is slowly trickling down to the national level, country and departmental priorities and interests may prove to deviate from those of the dominant players, especially on the more contentious issues.

Going South or going North?

As there remains national space for African countries to identify their own post-2015 priorities, a relevant question is which way the African pendulums will swing during the upcoming negotiations. Does Africa’s increased self-confidence and vitalized relationship with the BRIC-countries imply that Africa is turning its back to the North?African countries certainly uphold a strong North-South rhetoric, also in the OWG negotiations, by pursuing a different economic development model. They form a strong alliance with other G77 partners when it comes to developing countries’ representation and participation in the global economic and financial architecture. Moreover, clashes with the North most definitely come into play when it comes to means of implementation. Besides urging OECD countries to fulfil their previous ODA commitments and consistent references to the Common But Differentiated Responsibility principle (CBDR), Africa strongly endorses the current G77’s calls to attach financial mechanisms to each specific SDG and associated targets, which is one of the most critical issues in the current OWG discussions.

At the same time, African leaders acknowledge that it is in the interest of Africa, both economically and politically, to maintain strong ties with the North. Moreover, when differences over finance are set aside, African post-2015 priorities, especially when they relate to the more ‘traditional’ development issues such as health, gender and social protection, largely resonate with those of its Northern partners.

Aligning with multiple partners, from the North and increasingly from the South, is indeed enabling Africa to play a significant role in the process. In this respect, the CAP is seen as a vital instrument, as it provides a negotiation framework on which intercontinental alliances can be formed. At the same time, much of its significance depends on the extent to which it will trickle down to African governments and whether ownership can be built on African priorities.


  1. The arguments presented in this article are based on official documents, as well as interviews conducted with staff members from African institutions and research and civil society organizations, in order to gain insights into African post-2015 priorities.
  2. Algeria, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa.
  3. Launched by UNDP, the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African Union Commission (AUC), and the African Development Bank (AfDB).
  4. While the CAP was originally drafted to serve as a negotiation document for the international post-2015 negotiations, African institutions, like the AfDB and UNECA, now urge that the CAP should be extended to include specific African development goals to be pursued next to the post-2015 development goals.
  5. In this respect however, interviewees point to a gap between the position of African governments and African civil society: African civil society largely embraces a rights-based approach with focus on human rights, rule of law, transparency and accountability, while at AU member state level peace and security is largely detached from the rule of law.
  6. This finding does not coincide with the outcomes of the regional consultations, where peace and security was not mentioned as a priority by the Southern African region.