Dr. Joseph Chilengi, Chairperson of the Africa-EU Civil Society Joint Steering Committee, raises an interesting point when he says that civil society ranks among the key stakeholders in the Africa-Eu partnership, and that there should be increased space for its participation.
Most commonly Africa-EU partnership is conceived of in terms of contacts on the governmental and bureaucratic levels. The most innovative work worldwide, however, is being done by small, ad hoc, non-governmental and non-bureaucratic entrepreneurs and other civilians. There is potential for considerable collaboration between young educated populations who are linked through the internet. These can become transformative partnerships, but they may also make governmental and non-governmental bureaucrats nervous, because of the unpredictability of the outcomes they are likely to foster.
It is the tendency of technocrats to want to monitor, regulate and plan the future. They tend to work within the framework that already exists. Entrepreneurs of a rising internet generation, however, are more likely to try to reshape the future in unpredictable ways, rather than trying to find new ways to fit within existing structures. The most helpful thing that EU and AU administrators can do, in this rapidly morphing environment, is to foster civil society contacts, with minimal bureaucratic oversight, and then get out of the way. They should just stand back and watch the magic happen.
As I communicate with young Africans, throughout the continent, it is quite clear that they are thinking of Africa in new ways, and are poised to make use of opportunities created by a digitally connected world. They are interested in re-branding Africa; not in replicating updated versions of relationships of dependency from the past.
In the next decade or two, the demographic composition of the African continent will be decisively young, in relation to the rest of the world. This young demographic is proving to be highly adaptable to mobile technology. Africans are leaping over the desktop and laptop stages, as dominant means of computer usage, and going directly into mobile devices.
Mobile technology affords this younger population the opportunity to connect, create, and to gather information at speed and volumes that their parents could never have dreamed of. It is unlikely that they will need, or settle for, bureaucratic mediators and filters as they share information and work on joint projects. As mobile technology becomes more accessible, and as internet connection becomes more reliable, young Africans will create new partnerships and opportunities with European collaborators.
Yesterday’s structures for long-term planning are likely to become tomorrow’s anachronisms. They may already be anachronisms today. The future will not rely on the civil society waiting for ideas to emerge from governmental ministries; the future will emerge from the free flow of person-to-person civilian contacts, fostered through Skyping, twitter chats, blogging, e-mailing, and other digital contacts. This will make it easier for people with shared interests – anywhere in the world – to collaborate, swap information, and create new services and content. The new global paradigm is increasingly characterized by building bridges instead of walls.
As AU and EU administrators meet, next spring, their focus should not be on the coordination of cumbersome ministries and bureaucracies; it should be on what they can do to remove remaining barriers to person-to-person collaboration and problem-solving through digitally-connected and decentralized contacts between civil societies in Africa and Europe. With this focus, people who will come of age 25 years from now will look back and admire the “foresight” and “progressive-mindedness” of current ministries. This will be acknowledged as a period in which administrators from Europe and Africa opened the floodgates for otherwise overlooked talents and minds to come together, solve the problems and seize unimagined opportunities for posterity.