Engaging with Africa, daringly and at scale

Author: Karin Maasel, Head of the Africa and Emerging Markets Department, Estonian Centre for International Development

The approaching of the 6th EU-AU Summit has been accompanied by the age-old debate between grand statements and meaningful action. Never has this debate been timelier, as the EU moves to implement its Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF 2021–2027) in Africa, while being confronted by claims of it simply revamping ongoing initiatives under new and catchy slogans. The next 6 years will be instrumental to prove the critics wrong – to show that there is in fact a fresh momentum in the EU-Africa partnership and that Europe really is bigger than the sum of its parts. This dynamic coincides with Estonia’s forward-looking development sector reform and rapidly increasing engagement with Africa, daringly and at scale.

Karin Maasel, Head of the Africa Department at the EstDev

Karin Maasel

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified what Josep Borell has called the “global battle of narratives”. It is therefore unsurprising that it was during that time the term “Team Europe” emerged. Initially used to describe Member States’ joint efforts to tackle the coronavirus globally, it quickly took on a life of its own and now acts as a brand to reinforce a strong and coordinated European response to global development challenges. However, there is strong will to move beyond narrative. For instance, while the EU’s goal of advancing human-centred digitalisation in Africa may allude to a soft approach, it is everything but that. Europe is feeling the geopolitical power-struggle with China and is still waiting to see what Biden’s Africa policy really means in practice. In response, Europe is mobilising public and private funds to operationalise large scale Team Europe Initiatives to position itself as Africa’s “go to” partner.

In the midst of a strong momentum for European togetherness lies Estonia’s own partnership strategy with Africa. Estonia’s engagement with Africa is in its most rapid phase of development to date, yet at times distracted by the complex security dynamics in its immediate neighbourhood. In order to see the Estonia-Africa partnership mature, a persistent push tactic is required to keep Africa’s challenges and opportunities high up on the agenda at home. This involves demonstrating the potential for mutually beneficial economic relations with partner countries in Africa, while not forgetting Estonia’s obligation to provide impartial humanitarian assistance. In Estonia, we often talk about the „demographic dividend” of Africa in order to rally popular support for collaborating with the continent. However, we need to look beyond this. After all, Africa’s young, vibrant population merely points to the potential of a big growth market, and says very little about the steps needed to realise it.

“In order to see the Estonia-Africa partnership mature, a persistent push tactic is required to keep Africa’s challenges and opportunities high up on the agenda at home.” 

– Karin Maasel

Estonia has a niche that fits like a glove in the new Team Europe partnership with Africa. Approximately 4 billion euros worth of EU interventions linked to digital transformation will be translated into concrete initiatives for the African continent in the next 6 years – a figure comparable to other key priorities, such as migration and education. In addition to building Estonia’s digital footprint in Africa, we are innovating the education sector; supporting green transition and entrepreneurship; and contributing to tackling some of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. However, the development sector often demands quick wins, despite the long-term nature of the process of development itself. The need for quick results means that being the “best fit” does not always suffice – we need to be able to demonstrate best practice, at scale. Estonia has its work cut out for it, and it is determined to be fit for the job.

In 2021, Estonia carried out a major reform of the development cooperation sector, in order to respond to the increased global demand for its know-how. From the reform, the Estonian Centre for International Development (EstDev) was born, tasked with implementing development cooperation programs at scale, together with the public, private and NGO sectors. In other words, to together turn “best fit” into “best practice”. As any change process, this too has come with its challenges. Dissecting existing ways of working, addressing fragmentation and pulling the occasional sense of short-term opportunism out in the open means that we are taking a hard look at our own capabilities and motivations. However, with an ever-increasing group of highly experienced partners and a sizeable role to play in Team Europe, Estonia is ready to engage with Africa, daringly and at scale. After all, it is the only way to move beyond what Borell calls the “politics of generosity” to a partnership of equals.


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Estonian Centre for International Development is a government foundation that manages and implements Estonia’s participation in international development cooperation and humanitarian aid projects, with the aim of increasing Estonia’s contribution to global security and sustainable development.