Currently, I am preparing a lecture series which will look at the differences between the global north and the global south within the same continent. In Asia, you have cities like Tokyo or Seoul and you have cities like Jakarta, Rangoon or Dhaka. In America, you have cities like New York or Vancouver and you have cities like Rio de Janeiro or La Paz. Within a continent, you can experience huge differences in wealth and the way cities are made and the way cities operate.
Europe does not have that. Even though we talk about Southern Europe, on a global scale, that is not the south that can be found elsewhere. There is no global south in Europe – neither geographically, nor culturally, and certainly not economically. Why should this be a problem, one might argue – it helps the cultural integrity of Europe. I am not sure whether that is the case. To be very clear right from the start: I am not arguing for a new form of colonialism where Europe exercises control over the African continent. I am also not advocating a rebranding of Africa as Southern Europe. For Europeans to perceive Africa as its South, I see a lot of potential and mutual benefit: First, there is the geographic closeness. Large parts of Africa are much closer than large parts of Asia or America. Europe and Africa share the same time zones, which makes communication easier. Europe and Africa share a complicated, entangled history which – like it or not – has left traces on both continents. This is where the common stops and where the differences start. Europe is old, wealthy and sluggish, while Africa is young, dynamic and – on average – much poorer. In Europe, many economies are suffering from a lack of workforce available, while in Africa large populations are struggling to find a job.
All these conditions you can also find between Northern and Southern Asia or America, and both continents use it to their benefit. Because of the recognition that the South and the North form part of the same continent, there seem to be closer ties. Workforce is moving within the same continent, investment also very often is coming from the same continent, and cultural influence is also dominated by this constant south-north interaction. Of course, that is not happening free of any problems. There is exploitation of cheap labour, and the stories of some Filipino Nannies in Hong Kong are inhuman. There are businesses and entire counties trying to exercise control over others. But there also is a spirit of collaboration because it is seen as mutually beneficial.
Not in Europe. Our thinking stops at the Mediterranean. We even established a cruel regime of patrolling our southern border to prevent any migration, but also to set a sign that even trying to get in without the right papers will lead to problems and often despair. If we engage with Africa on the highest level, then this often comes in the form of development aid – doles we give to clean ourselves from the sins and atrocities of colonialism. We do not step out of our established role. We are stuck in the old thinking that we need to help by transferring money. How about changing this? How about seeing Africa as a place to learn from and to engage on equal terms. The continent might appear poorer in economic terms, but it is rich in practices and knowledge of how to do things differently. Little money leads to astonishing solutions to deal with problems. Look at materials: While we are struggling to establish circular material cycles, in many places in Africa it is a natural thing to do this. Look at service economy: while we often think it needs big investment and infrastructure, Africa shows us that all it needs is mobile phones and entrepreneurial spirit. Look at architecture: the scarcity of money leads to people using more natural and bio-based and local materials to build structures that use little technology but natural forces to create habitable conditions. If we open up to these practices and – along with that – to the people that represent that knowledge and that dynamism, then Europe and Africa both could enjoy an enormous boost. What we should be doing though is to avoid the exploitative patterns that characterized the North-South relationship in Asia and the America’s and part of the European integration post 1990. This is only possible if we constrain ourselves and do not allow for unsustainable things to happen. Maybe the colonial past and its exploitation is a lesson that prevents us from going down that route. The result could be a new form of international and continental cooperation that helps to solve Europe’s problems as it does help resolve Africa’s problems in a new way that overcomes old paradigms of growth and economic development. It could lead to a future that is more just and more resilient.