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Policy Brief: Agenda 2063, SDGs and FOCAC – African agency as the starting point

Three major overarching global plans with potentially long term ramifications for Africa’s development have been initiated in close proximity since the turn of the century. The African Union (AU) launched Agenda 2063 in 2013 on the occasion of the fiftieth celebration of the AU/Organization of African Unity (OAU). Two years later in September 2015, the United Nations (UN) launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a joint mechanism by China and African nations, released a new action plan (as well as China’s second African policy) in December 2015 for the period 2015-2018 (the FOCAC 6 Action Plan, simply FOCAC 6).

Apart from proximity in their most recent iterations, the three plans share further historical similarity in that FOCAC was established in 2000, coinciding with the launch of the SDGs’ predecessor, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the “African renaissance” initiatives starting in the late 1990s and culminating in the inauguration of the AU to succeed the OAU in 2002.

Africa’s historic opportunity, and learning from the past

As geopolitical-cum-geo-strategic plans, Agenda 2063, the SDGs and FOCAC portend a great historical intersection for Africa to banish past developmental failures and embark on cross-continental, multi-sectoral prosperity. Previous efforts, namely the MDGs, OAU/AU plans such as the Millennium Africa Recovery/Renaissance plan and past FOCAC plans have succeeded to some extent but have also had many failures. In any case, successes constitute achievements that we should take stock of while focusing on fixing the failures. For Africa to seize the opportunities that the new plans portend, it would be important to take a step back to take stock of the successes of the previous plans and hedge against a repeat of past failures.

A major consideration in these respects is that past grand AU, UN and Africa-China plans suffered elite capture and did not gain wide cross-continental acceptance and ownership particularly at the citizenry level. One way to leverage the failures of past plans is to ensure greater buy-in on the African continent and sensitize external partners on the African dimensions of the plans. The question then is, how do stakeholders among the general citizenry, policymakers, researchers, the civil society, youth, women, corporates and other interest groups buy into the three plans on their own and as they interface? Which conceptual approaches can be put in place to ensure that stakeholders particularly in Africa but also in China and globally deepen not just knowledge of the three plans, but more importantly, how can they be implemented as integrated initiatives on the ground?

It is worth pointing out here that there are multiple ways in which these plans can be referred to. There is no complication in terms of reference to Agenda 2063 as it has no synonymous, alternative or competing phraseology. SDGs are also known as Agenda 2030 and Global Goals but I settle for the SDGs phraseology because this is the most salient reference today. FOCAC is a rolling plan broken down into three-year plans. I therefore specifically refer to the FOCAC 6 Ministerial Action Plan released during the Johannesburg Summit rather than earlier ones. Also, I conveniently use the FOCAC 6 Action Plan well aware that China released its second African Policy in December 2015, a revision of its Africa policy of 2006. I will set aside these China policy documents and concentrate on the FOCAC 6 Action Plan for want of space in the current policy brief with a proviso that future work can incorporate them into the analysis. I reckon that the FOCAC plans provide more detail for a proper comparative analysis than the more generic Africa policy documents.

Aligning three plans

The three plans (Agenda 2063, FOCAC 6, SDGs) are independent of each other, at least from the point of view that they are domiciled in and are being implemented by different organizations: the AU, the Africa-China mechanism and the UN. These potential points of divergence stand in a counter-position to the potential intersections with regards to Africa’s development. How therefore can Agenda 2063, FOCAC and SDGs be aligned so as to benefit Africa, a continent where nearly half the population are living in poverty?

This policy brief looks to contribute to discussions around creation of conceptual frameworks to aid the integration of Agenda 2063, FOCAC and SDGs. The brief does this by analysing the key AU, FOCAC and UN documents namely Agenda 2063, the FOCAC 6 Action Plan and the SDGs. The emphasis is on understanding the crafting of these plans and their points of convergence and divergence so as to develop proposals for potential areas of integrated policy implementation. The brief proposes a rigorous approach that triangulates “African agency” with documentary/policy discourse analysis, ultimately leading to better buy-in of an integrated Agenda 2063, SDGs and FOCAC framework. I begin by briefly discussing African agency.

African agency

What is African agency and why is it essential for an integrated approach towards Agenda 2063, FOCAC and SDGs? As a concept, African agency, is gaining traction as a means of advocating an Afro-centric approach to understanding and advocating African issues. In some quarters, it is seen by turns as a complimentary and successor concept to the ideas of Pan-Africanism and the African renaissance that underpin intellectual discussions on and about Africa. Its key argument is that Africa is and should be an actor rather than being acted on in the international system. It argues the case for African solutions for African problems away from Euro-centricity, Pax Americana or orientalism. It seeks bottom-up rather than top-down, inside-out rather than outside-in approaches in opposition to the much lamented ramming down the continent’s throat of policy interventions generated from developed and emerging economies. African agency hedges against the supposition that Africa is a peripheral region only dictated to by powerful global actors without a cause-effect response. Where African agency in global affairs has failed, the concept calls for proactivity; where African agency has succeeded it calls for enhancement, in other words, Afro-optimism rather than Afro-pessimism.

Having discussed African agency’s broad definitive and conceptual contours, the natural progression is to figure out how it can be applied to issues at the intersection of Agenda 2063, SDGs and FOCAC. As “strategic actions” from an African viewpoint, African agency can function as an African starting point in conceiving and implementing the three plans. In essence therefore, the starting point in trying to shape the intersection of Agenda 2063, the SDGs and FOCAC in favour of Africa is to position Agenda 2063 as the analytical centrepiece; Agenda 2063 being the widely accepted continental blueprint. In other words, Agenda 2063 constitutes African agency in the continent’s global developmental policy and practice arena to which any other plans are and should be subordinate. Agenda 2063 provides a roadmap in which the other plans should be co-opted rather than the other way round. In common African parlance, a small river joins a big river. From an African agency perspective, Agenda 2063 is the big river and the SDGs and FOCAC are its tributaries despite the seeming illusion of their dominance.

There are many instances of success and failure, opportunities and limits, and advantages and constraints of African agency in the current international system. Going into the many examples of how Africa has failed or succeeded can be useful as a backgrounder, providing context for an integration of Agenda 2063 with FOCAC and SDGs. However, going fully into historical comparison would distract us from the focus of this brief: the intersection of Agenda 2063, SDGs and FOCAC. It is sufficient here to agree that African agency can be developed as a foundational argument for placing the Agenda 2063 at the heart of global plans such as SDGs and FOCAC.

Discourse analysis

Having argued the case for African agency as the starting point in the understanding of the interface of Agenda 2063, the SDGs and the FOCAC 6 Action Plan, it is important that analysis be grounded in analytical concepts and methods. Social science theories can be leveraged to this task. One such social science theory is discourse analysis which has been applied to language and meaning of texts/documents in international relations. For the current policy brief, discourse analysis is defined as the discursive convergences and divergences of Agenda 2063, the SDGs and FOCAC 6. In this sense, discourse analysis examines these key documents to see how they are framed in such a way as to relate to each other from an African angle. Documents are the crucial arena in which the drivers of Agenda 2063, the SDGs and FOCAC set the agenda and signal an implementation roadmap. The question then is: What are the frames used in official AU, UN and Africa-China policy documents? Using a discourse analysis approach, I comparatively examine the framing of these key policy documents to understand their formulation.

In broad terms, it is a demonstration of agency that the AU devised and launched the Agenda 2063 plan in 2013. As a consequence, Agenda 2063 is captured in the FOCAC 6 and the SDGs documents with pledges for the support of its aspirations and goals unlike the case with previous FOCAC plans and the MDGs, which captured Africa in rather amorphous terms. Had Africa not had a firm Agenda 2063 by 2015 when FOCAC 6 and the SDGs were rolled out, its interests would have been vague and would not have been included in the SDGs and FOCAC 6. This is an instance of African agency as it speaks to African actors ensuring that Chinese and UN agendas take cognisance of the continent’s developmental roadmap. It is indeed quite interesting that the SDGs are labelled as Agenda 2030/2030 Agenda in a manner similar to Agenda 2063. Did the UN borrow from the AU in using the term “Agenda”? While Agenda 2063 has the “first mover” advantage having been rolled out ahead of “Agenda 2030”, there is a danger in it being swallowed into the later, global plan. Indeed, it appears to me (subject to empirical confirmation) that Agenda 2030 has supplanted Agenda 2063 in African media. Are we seeing the waning of popular interest in Agenda 2063? Can it be that the rise of Agenda 2030 is responsible for the (speculatively) waning interest in Agenda 2063?

It may seem a moot point to state that the three plans have differing stakeholder focuses: Agenda 2063 for the African people, SDGs for the people of the world and FOCAC for the peoples of Africa and China. This stakeholder differences come through in the preambles of the three policy documents. Agenda 2063 speaks of “the Africa we want”, and goes on to place the peoples of Africa in its preamble. The SDGs talks of the “Agenda” being “a plan of action for people and planet”. FOCAC 6 is deficient in these respects in that the people aspects of the plan are captured deep in the document rather than in its preamble. However, it can be taken that FOCAC 6 is for the peoples of Africa and China, although, room exists for future FOCAC plans to place people at the top of their agenda as a means of redressing the criticism that FOCAC is more a state-state than a people-centred mechanism. More importantly, African agency would demand that the implementers of Agenda 2063 figure out how the interests of African people can relate to and with those of the people of the world (SDGs) and vis-à-vis Chinese people (FOCAC 6).

Policy recommendations

  • Because they are sponsored and implemented by different agencies, the implementation of the three plans may be duplicated and run counter to each other. An integration of the plans is important if implementation challenges such as gaps and duplication of roles and functions are to be avoided
  • The integration process calls for a methodological and conceptual framework. Because the three plans are ideally geared towards lifting the continent from the underdevelopment it currently faces, the integration methodologies and conceptual framework should be infused with African self-interest in a competitive world. African agency can provide the theoretical and conceptual tools than can be leveraged to place African interests at the heart of the global development agenda as anticipated in the SDGs and in Africa’s engagements with China via the FOCAC mechanism
  • After analysing and identifying Africa’s self-interest, it would be important to gain input from the people at various levels. This stakeholder involvement can be gained through quantitative or qualitative fieldwork – drawing on the findings of the documentary analysis. Another pathway in figuring out the interests of the “people” is to look at African perspectives on the SDGs and FOCAC in the African media content. Long, medium and short term strategies can then be fashioned with the global community under the SDGs and with China under FOCAC in a way that does not scare off partners but also does not short-change the continent
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