Launch of the Australia-Africa Universities Network

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs helped to launch the Australia-Africa Universities Network in Canberra on 17 July 2012. This speech was originally given by Mr Dennis Richardson, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Africa today

I am an unashamed optimist on Africa – and this is not just because my very first overseas posting was to Nairobi.

In fact the Africa of today is a world apart from the Africa that I first encountered in the late 1960s.

In 2000, The Economist magazine famously described Africa in its cover story as “The Hopeless Continent”.

Back then the promise and optimism of post-colonial Africa had apparently evaporated. Living standards had gone backwards in some countries. Undemocratic governments were not uncommon. And the continent had been beset by a sequence of humanitarian disasters, civil wars and genocide

Just over ten years later, in December last year, The Economist’s cover story was very different; “Africa Rising”, describing a continent ripe with opportunity and optimism.

The macro-indicators of Africa’s transformation over the past decade are remarkable.

Economic output in Africa has tripled – tripled – since 2002.

Over the past decade, six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa.

In eight of the past ten years, economic growth in Africa exceeded that of the region we normally think of as the world’s economic dynamo, East Asia.

And this is evident in foreign direct investment into Africa. In 2011 it was around $80 billion, five times greater than a decade earlier, and far more than Africa receives in development assistance.

All this is creating a genuine middle class. 600 million people in Africa now have mobile phones. By 2015, it is expected that Africa’s middle class will be 100 million, or the same size as India’s today.

What has caused such a dramatic transformation? The rise of China and India and the accompanying boom in commodity prices has undoubtedly helped, just as it has in Australia.

But the bigger story is the improvement in the quality of governance and growing political stability across Africa.

Democratic and responsive governments in Africa are now often the norm, not the exception. Power increasingly changes hands at the ballot box. Last year there were 45 elections in 30 African countries.

Coups are now less tolerated by the region’s powerbrokers and institutions – as the recent suspensions of Mali and Guinea-Bissau from the African Union shows.

Long-standing civil wars, such as those in Angola, Mozambique and Sudan, have been resolved or wound down.

Governments in Africa are no longer pursuing the state centralised and heavily regulated models that characterised much of the post-independence period. Instead they are open to trade and foreign investment and market-oriented.

On top of these important building blocks, Africa has several factors working in its favour.

Africa is commodity rich: it contains an estimated thirty per cent of the world’s mineral reserves, but attracts less than seven per cent of exploration expenditure.

It also has huge potential as an agricultural producer: sixty per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land is in Africa.

Demography will help: with a median age of 20, Africa is poised to reap a ‘demographic dividend’ that could power further economic gain.

Of course, Africa still faces challenges, in the areas of governance, infrastructure, and low levels of human capital.

But the overall story is very positive.

Standard Chartered forecasts that Africa’s economy will grow at seven per cent annually over the next 20 years – a rate slightly faster than China’s forecast growth over the same period.

Australian interests in Africa

What all this means is Australia cannot afford to ignore Africa – we have real interests at stake.

Australia’s mining sector figured this out some years ago, and it is Australian companies that are helping to drive Africa’s resource boom.

Australian mining investment in Africa is some $24 billion, with more in the pipeline.

Over 200 ASX-listed companies have more than 650 projects across 37 African countries.

In several countries, Australia is the largest mining investor. Of all overseas Australian mining projects, 40 per cent are in Africa.

This growing investment relationship is driving an increase in trade, especially in areas such as mining equipment, technology and services – bilateral goods trade is now worth $9 billion, having grown by 6.6 per cent annually over the past decade.

And as Africa’s middle class grows, the same opportunities emerging for us in Asia – in agriculture, education and services – will become apparent in Africa.

Beyond the economic story, Africa’s international weight is growing

A population of 1 billion people, expected to reach 2 billion people by 2050.

54 countries – more than one-quarter of the membership of the UN.

A growing source of resources and energy.

An increasingly cohesive actor on global issues, often speaking with a single voice through the African Union.

This means that if we want to get anything done in the multilateral system – be it an agreement on climate change, or the conclusion of the Doha Round, or an Arms Trade Treaty – Africa needs to be on board.

We also have growing security interests in Africa – be it piracy off the Horn of Africa, or the establishment of terrorist safe havens in places such as Somalia.

There is a growing African diaspora in Australia – according to the 2011 census over 300,000 Australians were African-born.

And if we take our humanitarian responsibilities seriously, Africa remains one of the poorest and least developed parts of the world. It warrants our attention.

Australian Policy

For these reasons, and admittedly off a very low base, the Australian Government has taken a conscious decision to increase our engagement with Africa.

We have established diplomatic relations with every African country.

We have beefed up our diplomatic network, with new diplomatic missions in Ethiopia and soon in Senegal.

Defence, Austrade and AusAID have also scaled-up their presence in Africa.

We have increased the tempo of high-level contact – Australian Foreign Ministers have been regular attendees at African Union Summits since 2009.

For the first time, DFAT created an Africa branch in 2010.

We are joining the African Development Bank.

This year, over 1,000 Africans will receive scholarships to study in Australia under the Australia Awards program.

And we are using our growing aid program in Africa to help build Africa’s economic prospects in areas where Australia has expertise to offer – areas such as mining governance and natural resources management, and agricultural productivity and food security.

There is undoubtedly more we can and should be doing, but I’m delighted that the trajectory of our engagement with Africa is heading in the right direction.

If we choose to ignore Africa, we do so to the detriment of our national interests.


Today’s launch of the Australia-Africa Universities Network is an important plank of what is a growing Australia-Africa relationship.

I warmly welcome the establishment of the network and commend those involved for their efforts to build on existing educational ties between the two continents.

This new network will provide a valuable opportunity to improve links between academics both here and in Africa, further strengthening both our research potential and our people-to-people links.

I understand there has already been considerable interest from universities and research institutes in this new network and I see great potential for further collaboration in areas of mutual interest, including in mining, agriculture and health.

I congratulate you on the initiative and wish you all the best for its success.

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