European and African leaders meeting in Brussels on April 2-3 must seal a new alliance for Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Africa and Europe are still important partners, with a relationship that has withstood the test of time. It’s time for a major rethink, however. “Opportunity Africa” must replace Europe’s still-jaundiced view of Africa as a problem.

As the theme of the Africa-Europe summit underlines, Africa and Europe have to start Investing in People, Prosperity and Peace. Doing so requires a shift in mindsets away from government-focused policies to people-centred actions and from aid to trade, investments and business. It has long been said: the donor/recipient relationship needs to be replaced by an equal partnership. Rapidly-changing domestic, regional and global developments make such a relationship reboot even more imperative.

To stay relevant in an era of volatile geo-politics, Africa-Europe relations will have to become more strategic, political and geared to tackling 21st Century challenges, including climate change, human trafficking and pandemics. For Europeans, it means jettisoning old stereotypes and fully embracing a new “Africa rising” narrative which reflects the continent’s changing realities. Access to Africa’s expanding markets and African raw materials will remain essential for European economic growth. But peace and stability in Africa are equally important for Europe’s prosperity.

Africa too needs to revisit its views of Europe. Courted by an array of affluent and dynamic new aid partners, including China, Brazil and Turkey, Africa is no longer as reliant on European development assistance as in the past. It’s now European markets, know-how and technology as well as Europe’s experience in regional integration and preventive diplomacy which can help. Europe’s policies to tackle regional inequalities, build capacity and regulatory frameworks can also benefit African governments.

Ascending Africa

Ascending Africa is not merely a slogan. Across the continent, poverty levels are falling, incomes are rising and there have been improvements in education and health. African economies have flourished over the past decade, turning the region into a magnet for foreign investors. Regional growth is expected to rise to 6% this year from 5% in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank (AfDB), making Africa second only to developing Asia in pace of expansion. Inflation remains under control, having stabilised last year at 5.5%, compared with 47.4% 20 years ago.

Despite short-term difficulties, internal dynamics which have boosted Africa’s surge over the last decade are still in play, says AfDB President Donald Kaberuka. “The internal consumer power is still there, the booming urban populations are still there,” Kaberuka said recently, adding that information technology advances were still “leapfrogging” across the continent at a rapid pace, and more governments were managing their economies better.

Celebrating Africa’s rise, however, does not mean ignoring its many challenges. Headline grabbing reports of high African growth rates, glittering cities and a thriving middle class tell only part of the story. To ensure a successful and sustained transformation of their economies, African countries must use the coming years to step up efforts to diversify their largely resource-based economies by investing in a modern and productive agriculture, building up a still-weak industrial base and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Wanted: a transformational agenda

Work on a new transformational agenda has started. “Agriculture should be an engine for industrialization on the continent,” African Union Commission Chairwoman Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma told a recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa. Better agriculture infrastructure and research to boost productivity and food security were important, she added. Progress on modernizing African farming is slow, however, with the ambitious Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) adopted by AU leaders in 2003 gaining only slow traction.

There is a new focus on industrialization. Participation in Global Value Chains (GVCs), which allow developing countries to develop specific skills or products for participation in international production networks, is still low across the continent. As they develop new strategies to enable better access to global value chains, governments must also support private-sector development in manufacturing, encourage foreign investments and promote young entrepreneurs, especially by easing their access to finance and credit.

Africa’s growing number of young people need jobs. With the population set to double from 1 billion to 2 billion over the next four decades, governments must ensure that the youth bulge – Africa has the youngest population in the world, with the number of Africans aged 15-24 set to double to 400 million by 2045 – is transformed into a true demographic dividend by providing employment and economic opportunities to young people. Failure to do so could lead to social unrest, political strife and a rise in extremism.

Social inequalities remain a challenge. Tax Justice Network-Africa and Christian Aid warn that taxes in many African countries disadvantage the poor. Tax systems that could be used to redistribute wealth more fairly are being undermined by tax dodging and illicit finance flows facilitated by off-shore secrecy. Corruption has long been recognised as a major problem as has poor governance. Africa has a long way to go in building integrated regional markets and improving and building infrastructure, moves that will promote intra-African trade and investments.

The establishment of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) is an important step forward in the continent’s long uphill struggle to establish peace and stability. The EU’s African Peace Facility is providing APSA with much-needed support but as the recent explosion of violence in the Central African Republic illustrates, ending strife in Africa still too often requires determined military intervention by AU and foreign troops.

Africa-Europe: more important than ever

The Africa-Europe summit can and should be an important milestone in changing the dynamics of a long-standing relationship. Africa and the EU have inter-acted since 1963 through the Yaounde Convention, the four Lome Conventions and the Cotonou Agreement signed in 2000 between the EU and the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group. The first EU-Africa summit in 2000 put a stronger focus on Africa as a partner for Europe.

The EU-Africa Strategic Partnership established in 2007 in Lisbon was expected to move the relationship to a new level, with both sides agreeing to pursue common interests and strategic objectives which went beyond the focus of traditional development policy and to forge a partnership of equals. However, the track record of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) which stands at the core of the partnership, is mixed, with neither side fully satisfied with the overall results. Europe’s negotiation of trade-focused Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African states – a process that started over ten years ago – puts additional strain on relations.

Africa-Europe ties are an important element in the growing network of alliances and coalitions which are emerging to tackle regional and global challenges. As they grapple with climate change, immigration, extremism and the task of ensuring equitable, sustained and inclusive growth, Africa and Europe have more to gain from their partnership than ever before. In a changing world, Africa-Europe ties are still relevant – but need careful nurturing.