Ireland and Africa: President Higgins reflects a relationship in transition


The paradox of remarkable economic growth in many African countries, combined with the enduring legacies of poverty, disease and hunger were central themes to President Higgins’ message on his just-completed tour of Africa. The President visited both Ethiopia – 2014 is the twentieth anniversary of mutual diplomatic relations – and Malawi, where there are major Irish aid programmes, concluding his trip in South Africa where, as he pointed out, a 30,000-strong Irish diaspora is “by far the largest Irish community on this continent”.

The relationship between Ireland and Africa is in transition from more traditional development aid partnerships to one based on the opening up of trade and investment links, the basis of the Government’s Africa Strategy. “South Africa is, in fact, one of our 27 priority markets and, in 2013, was Ireland’s 38th largest trading partner,” he told the Irish business community in Johannesburg, noting that trade between Ireland and Africa is expected to reach €24 billion by 2020. Exports to Ethiopia are worth €20 million a year.

Drawing repeatedly on Ireland’s experience of famine and colonialism, Mr Higgins emphasised the essentially political nature of development and poverty reduction and the extent to which Africa’s challenge is its own to resolve. “Empowerment of those living in poverty is both a critical driver of the fight to end poverty and one of its most important metrics. The right investments in economic and social infrastructure combined with legislative and regulatory measures supporting basic rights – to decent work and to gender equality – are important building blocks of economic empowerment.” The rise in inequality around the world was not inevitable, he said.

Citizen empowerment is also key in the region to strengthening human rights and their reconciliation with the at-times “violent” development imperative, the president argued to students at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The “ view that human rights can be suspended in the name of macroeconomic stability would also have the effect of preventing individuals from being empowered to realise their rights in such a way that they lead and take full ownership of the development process,” he told the students, and, he had earlier hinted it may well have been part of the message privately to leaders in Addis Ababa, where human rights groups report serious concerns about freedom of the press, association and assembly.

Mr Higgins continued in a similar vein, departing from script, to condemn the Irish system of direct provision for asylum seekers. Although straying into the notionally verboten area of political controversy, Mr Higgins’ comments are a welcome wake-up call to the Government and entirely at one with his message to Africa. People who live in glasshouses ...