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The New Scramble for Africa
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The New Scramble for Africa

Mark Newton

9th May, 2012

From slave labour to armed conflict, our thirst for natural resources has created serious problems for Africa. Pádraig Carmody’s latest book attempts to unravel the moral morass, says Mark Newton

The continent of Africa has long suffered at the hands of other nations. In the nineteenth century, Europe’s major powers battled it out for economic dominance. Today new superpowers such as China seek to feed their voracious appetite for natural resources as their own domestic growth booms. Africa’s path of development is seen as something of a ‘paradox of plenty’, whereby despite the wealth of resources at its disposal - from uranium and oil to diamonds and gold - it remains economically poor. Carmody’s ambitious book seeks to explore this complex state of affairs. It examines the old economic powers of Britain, Europe and the United States, which have ‘somewhat different interests, depending on their individual histories and economies’ as well as how they compete with the new economic powers.

The path to the modern scramble for Africa, Carmody argues, was set in the latter half of the 20th century by the infamous World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programmes, which essentially required nations open up to privatisation and state cut-backs in order to receive favourable trading conditions, not that external pressures were a particularly new phenomenon at the time. The British Empire in Africa once stretched from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope and, after being bankrupted by the Second World War, extended its relationship with the United States, which closer relationship brought with it a transition of influence over Africa. But as Carmody explains, it wasn’t until the Cold War that the United States began to show an ‘active interest’ in African nations by supporting various murky dictators in order to support its foreign policy goals. US interests were largely – and still continue to be – related to oil, though packaged under the more general label of supporting African markets.

More recently the US has built up a considerable military presence, from training African troops, to the rather murky sounding ‘security cooperation’ with various states. European countries continued in the latter half of the 20th Century to exercise great influence on post-colonial Africa; France, for example, possesses a ‘sorry history of supporting compliant African dictators’. Britain, on the other hand, looked on disinterestedly until after the 1997 election that brought Tony Blair to power. Britain’s newly formed Department for International Development ‘explicitly untied its aid from its commercial interests’, something worth bearing in mind when considering the financial affairs of the new economic powers. For decades, these countries have dominated the African agenda, and Carmody maps out an outline of what happened to make Africa what it is today.

Carmody then moves onto the new economic superpowers: China, India and Brazil. The rise of China - an economy growing at 10 per cent a year with a population of over a billion people - has meant that Beijing moved from being ‘an exporter of raw materials and minerals to a large-scale importer’. China consumes ‘one third of the global steel output, 40 per cent of cement and 26 per cent of the world’s copper’ and is now Africa’s ‘biggest trading partner’. Carmody suggests that much of China’s immersion in African affairs has been somewhat controversial, from adopting a ‘no questions asked’ policy with various states to being plagued with allegations of poor wages and dire labour conditions at its African companies ¬generally prioritising the ‘economic over political and security concerns’. However, as Carmody explains, it has evolved a newer set of more sophisticated policies in its aim to compete with European nations and the US.

The scramble for African resources has led to a great deal of conflict across the continent. Another example is that of the need for uranium to feed nuclear reactors and low-carbon ambitions, which has contributed to heavy pollution and conflict in Niger. Also blighted with resource-created conflict is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where for decades, coltan, copper and diamonds have been fought over by an unholy bunch of militias, mercenaries and foreign soldiers. Coltan in particular is a critical resource for mobile phones and other electronic devices, which has seen its price rise dramatically over the past decade. If the violence associated with securing the resource were not bad enough, children are often involved: needed to fight in the conflicts and mine the material. What’s more, much of the coltan mining operation occurs in two world heritage sites, threatening the local ecosystems. 

Of course, there is much more to be considered: more resources that form a point of conflict; more nations in which this occurs; more subtleties to the debate. This review barely scratches the surface of what’s contained within the book, but as Carmody demonstrates, there is so much more to understand about current competition for Africa and its resources. From biofuels to the military, from fish to diamonds, the subject is vast and, though some stages removed, ultimately involves all of us in one way or another. 

Carmody’s skill is not merely in his assiduous efforts to pool a huge array of information, but also in not getting carried away with political rhetoric, though writing in a subject where this would be easy to do. Instead he aggregates, dissects and contextualises a broad range of subjects and references. Everything here is backed up with statistical data and from numerous, wide-ranging sources.  Though fact-heavy, The New Scramble for Africa is a remarkably accessible work on economic development. It allows readers to get a better understanding of the complex issues and reveals some of the most important global topics of the 21st century.

The New Scramble for Africa by Padraig Carmody (£15.99, Polity Press) is available from Amazon

Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN

 

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