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African Agency in International Politics - Seminar Series


The book published as one of the outputs from the series, African Agency in International Politics, edited by William Brown and Sophie Harman (2013), is available from the Routledge website.

Summary and key insights (PDF document)

Also emerging from the series is a special issue on 'African Agency in a Changing Security Environment', edited by Danielle Beswick and Anne Hammerstad, and now on the Conflict, Security and Development journal website.

About the Seminar Series

Over the past decade, Africa has become an increasingly prominent actor in international politics, evident in its role in international trade negotiations, processes governing the distribution of aid and discussions over climate change, as well as military and humanitarian intervention. African governments and non-state actors have responded to changing international circumstances (the rise of China, increasing economic integration) with renewed diplomatic and political activity on world and regional stages. In a more indirect way, social processes shaped by African actors (both state and non-state) are generating new areas of interdependence between the continent and outside powers in the form of 'new' transnational issues - migration, displacement, environmental degradation and health.

This seminar series overturns the conventional approach to understanding Africa in international relations (which asks how external actors and events impact upon the continent) by asking instead how rising African activism in international politics impacts upon the international system including the policies and decision-making processes of western powers and international institutions. Whilst important for understanding the continent's international relations in themselves, a study of this renewed phase of African political agency is also crucial for policy makers in the UK, EU and other western states as well as for policy makers and analysts within Africa. In fact, not only does African agency impact directly on areas of mutual interdependence, but in many areas - trade, environment, aid, intervention and peacekeeping – western states have also sought to improve and enhance the capacity of African actors in the international arena. Enhanced African agency in international politics thus raises an interesting question: on the one hand it is a declared aim of policy, on the other, enhanced capability may also limit western influence. Examples include problems arising from increased developing country influence in the WTO or climate change negotiations; and increased African capacity to influence where, when and how humanitarian intervention should take place.

The starting point for these seminars - asking how Africa impacts on 'the international' - relates to a theoretical debate in the discipline of International Relations about whether we can account for the international relations of smaller, less powerful states and other developing country actors within contemporary theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Is an analytical shift enough, or do we also need to rethink conceptual frameworks? There is already an ongoing debate about the how to analyse Africa's international relations. This seminar series responds to a gap in our knowledge about Africa's role in shaping international politics which has arisen especially because of the number and importance of recent developments such the creation of the African Union, the rise of China, counter-terrorism and new security concerns and the role of the WTO.

This series is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Research Seminars Competition with additional funding from BISA and the five hosting institutions.

The series included five seminars held at Chatham House, University of Birmingham, University of Kent, City University and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. The seminars will brought together a broad mix of academics, policy-makers and non-governmental organisations from Africa and the UK to discuss the following topics:

  1. Africa in International Negotiations (Chatham House)
  2. Peace, Conflict and Intervention (University of Birmingham)
  3. Transnational Security (University of Kent)
  4. African Agency: Implications for IR Theory (City University)
  5. Southern Africa: agency, issues, and theory (University of Stellenbosch)
BISA Africa and International Studies Working Group