Joel Negin worked on development issues in Africa and is now senior lecturer in international health at the University of Sydney.
Just as Australia settles into its UN Security Council seat, new African crises have arisen as the first emerging challenges of Australia's two-year role. Over the last few weeks, Australian policymakers and commentators have been frantically flipping through atlases finding Mali and tracing their fingers through northern Mali into the sands of Algeria. What were once considered faraway African skirmishes are now critical for Australian government officials and observers to understand.
Beyond Mali and Algeria, potential hot spots for the Security Council's attention in 2013 include the ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, instability in Chad and the Central African Republic, tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, the recent coup attempt in Eritrea, as well as the upcoming constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe and March election in Kenya.
Yet it seems Australia might not be well prepared for the African challenges that will come to the Security Council's attention. Australian perspectives on Africa are mired in the past or in a narrow perception that ignores the rapid change, dynamism and opportunity that mingles along with the uncertainty of conflict.
The Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently referred to Africa as 'the dark continent', demonstrating a remarkable and scarily ossified 19th century view of Africa.
The Foreign Minister, in a number of recent statements, has continually framed Australia's interest in Africa as a large mining pit only, reliably citing the fact that Australian companies have invested billions of dollars in African mines.
More importantly, Australian politicians and commentators have tried hard to paint the Mali conflict as being similar to that in Afghanistan, in that both are driven by al Qaeda. Perhaps it's because the Afghanistan frame of reference is familiar. In reality, the main similarity between Mali and Afghanistan is the dramatic paucity of Western intelligence on the two countries prior to intervention.
The comparisons with Afghanistan do little to extend our understanding of the complexities of the situation in Mali, which in large part stem from the unintended consequences of Qadhafi's demise in Libya. The void left by Qadhafi's departure has left a number of Islamist and mercenary groups without financial support and in search of new ways to use the plentiful weapons smuggled out of Libya at the end of the conflict. If anything, elements of al Qaeda have latched onto these armed groups rather than the other way around.
If Australia is to play a meaningful role on the Security Council, it needs to move away from narrow and dated perspectives.
A major risk of Australia's Security Council presence is the knee-jerk response of seeing everything in Africa through the lens of conflict. It is critical that Australia not view Africa solely as a series of hotspots, nor as only a big hole for Australian miners to dig.
Africa is home to seven of the world's top 10 growing economies including Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. It is the fastest growing region of the world for broadband. In 15 years Africa will have the largest labour pool, surpassing that of China. And it already has a larger middle class than India; the world's new middle class consumers will be African.
Other countries have recognised these trends: China's trade with Africa has increased at an average annual rate of 50% since 2000 and now accounts for roughly 20% of Africa's overall trade. Africa's trade with Turkey, India and Brazil has exploded.
Where Australia has diplomatic representation, it is relatively well placed to respond to emerging challenges. In Zimbabwe and Kenya, where tensions are possible in the first half of 2013, Australia has strong teams with experienced heads of mission. But in Mali, DRC, Cote d'Ivoire and Chad, for example, Australian understanding is much less robust. The recent agreement to post Australian diplomatic officials in British embassies is a step in the right direction to build at least the basic knowledge required to respond.
The situation in Mali highlights the need to build understanding beyond conflict and mining. The low levels of support for the Islamists from the local population is largely driven by the fact Mali was one of the most stable, longest-standing democracies on the continent with strong economic growth and considerable exports of cotton and livestock. The imperative to support the people of Mali is not just about al Qaeda but about allowing a strong, proud, successful nation to get back on its path towards development.
Photo by Flickr user wader.