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Challenges for Africa and Europe deeply interconnected

Global Forum on Human Resources to address issues facing both continents

Members of the Naval Service attached to the LE Eithne rescue refugees in the Mediterranean in June 2015. Photograph: David Jones/Irish Defence Forces/PA Wire

Packed, leaky boats filled with refugees at risk of drowning.

Thousands and thousands dying from Ebola while a health system under stress struggled to cope.

Two stark images from recent years and reminders of the interconnectedness of our world and of the need to respond to difficult challenges in a connected way.

As I visit the Horn of Africa this week, I am reflecting on the interconnectedness of Europe and Africa. The opportunities, but also the attendant risks if real challenges are not addressed. This requires a consideration of political relations between our two great continents, which notwithstanding our deep links can always be improved.

The meeting later this month of leaders from the European Union and the African Union in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, will result in political declarations and action plans. These are important and, of course, it will be essential to translate the possibility of plans, of language, into outcomes and results. However, the real value of the summit will be the opportunity provided to leaders from both continents to get to know each other and to work on the underlying political issues which inform many of the challenges which face both Europe and Africa, in a spirit of partnership, friendship and commitment.

Sustainable futures

In meetings in Kenya and Ethiopia, I will meet policymakers working to provide inclusive and sustainable futures for their growing, youthful populations, against a backdrop of regional insecurity. Following intensive talks in Northern Ireland last week, I am reminded too that building for the future is a challenge faced by leaders in every country, region or continent. Some challenges are domestic, some regional. Others, such as climate change, are global – in cause, effect and responsibility. Regardless of where challenges originate, there is a responsibility on leaders to communicate and share ideas and, together, drive solutions forward.

Ireland’s diverse relationship with Africa has many origins: Irish missionaries, educators, peacekeepers, humanitarian NGOs and our development co-operation programme, Irish Aid. While these elements remain, particularly our development co-operation links, we are also now very much focused on our trade, investment and political links, reflecting the dynamism of the continent.

Importantly, we are now ever more connected through our people, with diaspora communities who call Ireland home becoming part of the Irish story, giving new vitality to our relationships. We also share with many countries our experiences of colonialism, famine, our independence struggle, mass emigration and rapid developmental change. And our youthful demographic in Ireland has allowed us to understand the capacity for dynamism inherent in other youthful societies.

The youth of our two continents are our hope for a better future. They have grown up in an age of extraordinary technological advances – one in which communication technology has shrunk the distance between our continents, as cultures overlap and borrow from each other, and our populations live together in ever more connected ways. It is this energy which must be harnessed if we are to meet the aspirations expressed through Africa’s own Agenda 2063 and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, championed by Ireland and Kenya in 2015.

Stronger co-operation

For Ireland and the EU, we are clear that this means seeking stronger co-operation in the international arena, building the security of our two continents, and building economic links which will promote sustainable growth and livelihoods in Africa and Europe. In the EU, in particular, we need to be open about our interests in partnership with Africa.

We must also work bilaterally. Ireland’s response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, through the work of the Naval Service in saving lives, is part of that. Building on our response to the Ebola crisis, it is now essential that health systems are strengthened. That is why Ireland will host, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation a Global Forum on Human Resources for Health next week in Dublin. There is also the question of how best to maximise the opportunity provided by dynamic population growth, allied with technology and infrastructure, to drive transformative change – particularly, but not only, in agriculture and agrifood.

The Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, wrote of how “no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land”. We live on and off the land. We need to make sure all our children find their home there – through investing in food security, livelihoods and in ensuring the safety of all.

There is more, much more, that we can do. That is why I have asked for a review of Ireland’s development aid policy, so we can work more effectively with our partners in Africa, and beyond, to address those interconnected challenges which will shape our future.

Simon Coveney is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade