Why Africa is turning its back on the eco-obsessed West
The developing world needs rapid growth, not lectures on sustainability.
The Western democracies appear united in their support for Ukraine, but they may also be losing the bigger, more consequential battle for the loyalties of the developing world. Virtually no developing country – including democracies like India, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa – has chosen to take steps opposing Russia’s aggression (in fact, South Africa may have joined Iran in sending weapons to Moscow). This is a stark reflection of the West’s waning influence.
The West is losing not because the developing world wants to genuflect to Vladimir Putin, or to his liege lord, Xi Jinping. Instead, we are seeing a growing disconnect between Western ‘values’, including on critical issues like food and energy production, and the needs of developing countries, many of which have struggled since the pandemic. In a period of steadily rising costs, countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and India are refusing to sanction Russian oil, allowing Moscow to match its pre-war oil exports. China has also boosted its oil purchases from Russia, as demand hits record levels.
Unlike the affluent West, people in these countries still believe in future growth. When searching for a modern Marshall Plan, they look increasingly not to America or Europe for support, but to China. China has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts for developing countries. This is not without its risks, to both the developing world and to China itself, though it has undoubtedly increased Chinese influence.
Critically, the Russian war has accelerated calls for global trade to be conducted in currencies other than the dollar, like the yuan and the rouble. Left-leaning leaders in the US’s traditional Latin American sphere of influence, such as Brazilian president Lula da Silva, are especially keen to end the dominance of the dollar.
The once-marginal alliance of BRICS countries, which met this week for talks in South Africa, represents a counterpoint to Western dominance, especially as it could soon be expanded to include new members such as Iran, Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Indonesia. China’s coup in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table presages what could be its role as a dominant global hegemon. Meanwhile, presumed US allies in the Middle East are moving closer to Russia in defence matters. This stems less from China’s or Russia’s power or persuasiveness, but more from the fact that the West is simply not offering enough to countries in the developing world, particularly to those on the brink of bankruptcy.
Africa will be increasingly crucial to geopolitics, in part due to its domination of many critical minerals – notably cobalt, coal and uranium. It is also the only part of the world likely to experience significant workforce growth in the coming decades. By 2050, United Nations projections suggest that nearly 55 per cent of the world’s population growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates are still relatively high. From 2050 to 2100, Africa is expected to account for almost 100 per cent of the world’s population growth, as populations plummet elsewhere.
African and other developing countries need to grow. They do not – indeed they cannot – embrace Western assumptions about culture, politics and, most importantly, the balance between economic and environmental goals. As rich countries age and worry about both their pensions and the planetary future, poorer countries are more focussed on how to improve conditions for the rising generation. Net Zero orthodoxy, with its embrace of degrowth and austerity, has little appeal – particularly as residents of wealthy countries, despite all their boasts about solar panels and wind farms, already use 23 times more fossil-fuel power than the average African.
It’s not that Africans are indifferent to their environment. It is simply that, as Nigerian vice-president Yemi Osinbajo has noted: ‘No country in the world has been able to industrialise using renewable energy.’ Banning fossil fuels just means that developing countries will struggle to follow in the footsteps of the developed world, notably those in East Asia.
Fundamentally, the green movement represents the worldview of rich-nation elites who now feel able to pivot towards expensive alternatives. In contrast, India, the most important and potentially powerful developing country after China, has made no secret that it plans to develop coal and other fossil fuels as part of its drive to industrialise.
The West expects the rest of the world to implement green-energy requirements through various mechanisms and channels such as development aid, financial support, bilateral and multilateral agreements, and investments tied to ESG (environmental, social and governance) requirements. However, what is ignored by these rich nations is that climate change is not considered a pressing issue by Africans. According to polling conducted by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, the most pressing issues facing Africa are unemployment, health and education. Across the 34 countries surveyed, unemployment is a significant concern for Africans aged 18 to 35, ranking as the highest and most critical issue in every country. This is followed by approximately one-third (33 per cent) of African citizens identifying health as one of their top three priorities, coming just above education (29 per cent).
Climate change does not make the list. The reasons are not hard to fathom. Africa is home to many of the roughly 3.5 billion people worldwide with no reliable access to electricity and are most vulnerable to high energy and food prices. It is no surprise that Africans increasingly ignore the West and, in concert with China, are building new fossil-fuel plants (coal consumption is at a historic high), as well as hydroelectric and nuclear facilities, all of which are anathema to many Western greens.
To make matters worse, the EU is already considering carbon taxes on imports in ways that could cut African economies off from global markets. Under the proposals, a surcharge would be levied on carbon-intensive imports to nullify the cost advantage non-EU countries enjoy by virtue of not being subject to such stringent CO2 rules in their countries of origin. The sectors that will be hit first are cement, iron and steel, aluminium, fertilisers and electricity.
Africa may be poor, but it is growing. Over the past two decades, it has enjoyed average annual GDP growth rates ranging between four per cent and six per cent. However, much of this growth is tied to resource production, not to the ‘knowledge economy’ or to services. High commodity prices, especially in the past two years, have been critical to sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth, just as they have helped Russia and Iran survive Western sanctions, and have created a vast new boom in the Gulf. Africa needs to maintain these growth levels if it is to ever catch up with the rest of the world. According to World Bank data, sub-Saharan Africa has a per capita income of just $1,600, compared with the world average of $11,000. Yet such growth would simply not be possible under the West’s decarbonisation regime.
Green efforts to reduce agricultural output, which are being trialled in the US, Canada and Europe, could have particularly profound consequences for billions in the developing world. These countries need more food production, and not just the organic food preferred by Western oligarchs and non-profits. They know that the adoption of the sustainability agenda precipitated a breakdown of Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector and the ensuing violent overthrow of its government last year. China, itself faced with a potential agricultural shortfall, could well start to view Africa as an ideal place for feeding its population in a cost-effective way.
The very things places like sub-Saharan Africa need – new energy sources, growing export markets and capital – will not be easy to procure from stagnant Western economies concerned largely with satisfying their pensioners. Africa can provide the labour the world will need, even as it urbanises and reduces its demographic growth. The question is whether Africans will work closer to home, or in the rich, child-short cities of the developed world.
What is clear is that these poorer countries do not have the luxury of slow growth. Their workers need to find work either domestically or internationally in order to improve their lives. These countries certainly cannot grow their industrial production when their electricity grids are already close to collapse.
These factors have underpinned the developing world’s reluctance to embrace the Ukrainian cause. As the West puffs up its collective chest, China, an emerging financial as well as trade giant, has become Africa’s largest trading partner as well as its leading creditor. Russia has strengthened its trade relations with African countries through energy partnerships (including on nuclear power), military cooperation and technology transfers.
But the growing divergence between the developing world and the rich West also extends beyond just economics. Many ideals that have recently taken hold in the Western world will likely lead Africa, India and other developing countries to seek other partners. This includes such things as the rise of wokeness and an increasingly disdainful view of traditional values.
In a recent survey of cultural attitudes, it turns out that Protestant Europe is the most secular and ‘modern’ part of the world, followed by Catholic Europe and the English-speaking world. The West functions economically as an ‘empire’, but seems to detest its own culture and heritage. This has made it harder to defend those Western values which really are worth propagating – such as democracy, free speech, racial equality and sexual freedom. On the other end, the most traditionalist countries are located in Africa, the Islamic world and even Orthodox Europe, reflecting Russia’s imprint. In much of the world, Western liberal values seem sadly out of place. In some places they are outright resented, such as in countries like Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania, among others, where homosexuality is outlawed.
At the same time, Western hand-wringing over the actions of some states could push them further away. It is ‘suicidal’, as author Walter Russell Mead puts it, for the West to ignore authoritarian or even democratic states in Asia or Africa simply because we don’t like all of their internal policies. These countries, he notes, would rather get something like an airport or a dam than another lecture from privileged emissaries from Brussels, London or Washington. The fact that some Western countries, notably France, seem ready to make their own accommodations with China suggests that the much ballyhooed solidarity of wealthy democracies may be greatly overstated.
Many Western ideals – belief in open markets, the rule of law and an openness to racial diversity – have contributed to prosperity in Africa and could do so even more in future. But to bring these blessings, the United States and Europe need to abandon their assault on prosperity and progress. Developing countries are not necessarily looking forward to a Chinese-dominated future, but the West has to give them reasons to look elsewhere. It is time for the West to drop the lectures and step up its game.
Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin
Bheki Mahlobo is a market analyst at ETM Analytics. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Picture by: Getty.