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African Agency in International Politics - Seminar Series

Seminar 4
African Agency: Implications for IR Theory

14 September 2011 — Department of International Politics, City University

The fourth seminar takes a cross-issue look at African agency in international politics, reviewing the ground covered in the previous seminars. First, it will ask a series of general analytical questions about Africa's role in international politics including the extent of, and obstacles to, increasing African influence in international politics, the underlying causes and the implications for Africa's foreign policies and those of western states, the UK in particular. Second, the seminar considers some of the conceptual and theoretical implications for the analysis of Africa's international relations and for rethinking Africa in international politics. The seminar builds upon the empirical findings of seminars 1-3 to identify themes and commonalities on African agency and how they can be conceptualised within existing International Relations theory, and how African agency confronts the limits of such theoretical analysis. Papers will explore how new analytical and theoretical insights can inform and illuminate policy options and choices, and enable better understanding of the changing geopolitical importance of the region, of central importance to diplomatic services in Africa and the UK

PDF Seminar 4 Programme (264 KB)

PDF Executive Summary (208 KB)

Contact: Sophie Harman,

About the Speakers

Stefan Andreasson (Queens University Belfast)

From Empire and Cold War to the Emerging Markets Century: what can we learn from Africa's persistently peripheral role in International Relations?

This paper examines 'African agency' in an emerging markets century characterised by an increasingly influential role of non-Western state actors in the global political economy, and in international relations more generally. A range of Realist and neo-Realist perspectives on international relations recognise the transition in recent decades from a bi-polar to a multi-polar world, via a brief moment of American unipolarity in the wake of the Cold War. But whereas this transition has received much scholarly attention and has been well-documented in terms of relative shifts in power and influence between major Western states and their main competitors among the so-called emerging markets – most notably China – less attention has been paid to how transformation of the global order is affecting states in the most marginalised regions of the world. This paper focuses on implications of this global power shift for state actors in sub-Saharan Africa as a region which, despite receiving increasing attention due to improved prospects of economic and market growth, remains marginal and relatively powerless in international fora and the Realpolitik of international relations. Specifically, the paper argues that despite the 'new scramble for Africa', the continent's role in international relations remains decidedly peripheral. It is therefore difficult to identify concrete ways in which 'African agency' can be used to innovate and thus improve on established analytical frameworks with which we attempt to understand the shifting dynamics of international relations, the driving dynamics of which remain largely external to regions like Africa. We can however draw important lessons from Africa's role in the emerging markets century regarding the degree of continuity in global power relations and the persistent relevance of Realist perspectives for understanding international relations, even in an era of great global transformation. In this sense, the Thucydidean perspective on power relations remains highly relevant and, pace the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is for actors outside those possessing transformative power nothing new under the sun.

Stefan is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Queens University Belfast. Stefan's specific research interests include: the legacy of settler colonialism; state-business relations and their impact on development and democratisation; the history of capitalism in Southern Africa; corporate governance in developing countries; relations between North and South in the global economy; conservatism and economic development. Stefan's research has been funded by the ESRC World Economy and Finance Research Programme, the British Academy and the Nuffield Foundation and he has published in Political Studies, Political Geography, Business & Society, Third World Quarterly, Democratization, and Journal of Contemporary African Studies. He is the the author of Africa's Development Impasse: Rethinking the Political Economy of Transformation (Zed Books) and is currently writing a book entitled Conservatism and Postcolonial Politics (under contract with Routledge).

William Brown (Open University)

Still 'agency in tight corners'? Analytical notes on African agency in international politics

This paper considers some of the substantive and theoretical issues raised by the issue of African agency in international relations. The paper begins with a schematic outline of some contemporary contexts within which questions of African agency in international politics have come to the fore. For each we are faced with a sense of a renewed level of activism by African political actors, but one that is still tightly constrained by historically-shaped structures of uneven development. Nevertheless, the substantive analytical questions that are raised clearly point to a need to engage conceptually and analytically with a range of different agencies at work within the broadly-drawn canvas of the continent's international relations. While the notion of 'African agency' has featured now and then within historical and cultural studies of Africa, particularly relating to colonialism, there is much less in the field of Africa's international relations. The paper draws selectively on some elements of the wider IR literature on agency to suggest some tentative ideas on how a study of African agency in international relations might be framed. Specifically, the paper suggests that not only are the varied structural contexts within which agencies exist important but so too the temporal aspects to agency. In addition, the paper argues that contrary to many accounts of contemporary international relations, state sovereignty continues to play a fundamental role in differentiating 'state-based' agency/cies from other political actors. However, neither agents nor their social contexts can be understood without a carefully balanced historical account.

Will is Senior Lecturer in Government and Politics at the Open University. Dr Brown is a founder and the current convenor of the British International Studies Association (BISA) Working Group on Africa and International Studies. Previous research has included theoretical work (such as 'Africa and international relations: a comment on anarchy and statehood' Review of International Studies vol.32 no.1 2006) as well as contemporary political developments (such as 'The Commission for Africa: results and prospects for the west's Africa policy.' Journal of Modern African Studies vol.44 no.3 2006). He has written in particular on aid relations between UK/EU and Africa including the recent article 'Reconsidering the Aid relationship: International Relations and Social Development' which appeared in a special issue of the journal The Round Table (vol.98, no.402, 2009) which he co-edited.

Carl Death (Aberystwyth University)

Africa, governmentality and the international: Reflections on agency and the climate change negotiations

The use of Foucauldian governmentality theory in international politics has been heavily scrutinized recently, with articles by Jonathan Joseph and Jan Selby, among others, critiquing the way in which governmentality has been applied at the international level, and in so-called 'non-liberal' parts of the world. Africa has been frequently invoked in this debate as one of the limits of Foucauldian analysis, a realm of politics so far removed from the advanced liberal European societies in which Foucault's own work was grounded that, it is implied, Africanist scholars should reject Foucauldian approaches and turn to other theoretical frameworks. This article responds to some of these critiques by drawing upon Africanist scholarship which does use the concept of governmentality, in particular the work of Jean-Francois Bayart. His notion of extraversion has important implications for understandings of African agency. This paper considers these implications in the light of international climate change negotiations, through which African actors have sought to mobilize resources derived from their unequal relationship with the external environment. This article argues that by treating governmentality as an analytical approach rather than a specifically neoliberal form of power relation, it can have considerable purchase in non-liberal societies, and can also tell us something interesting about the unevenness of contemporary global politics.

Carl is Lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. He has conducted research in South Africa and New York, and has held visiting researcher positions at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. Carl's research has been primarily located at the intersection of three fields: African politics and development (particularly post-apartheid South Africa), environmental politics and sustainable development discourse, and Foucauldian governmentality analysis. He is also interested in the theoretical fields such as postcolonialism and poststructuralism, the politics of summit diplomacy, and the symbolic and theatrical dimensions of power.

Chris Landsberg (University of Johannesburg)

Diffused continentally; Undermined abroad?

The 'golden decade' of African diplomacy, 1998-2008, passed by with hardly a whimper in the mainstream IR literature. This decade saw a number of states, including South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Senegal, Mozambique, Tanzania and Ghana, organize themselves to play innovative policy roles on the continent. These states sought to put in place the building blocks of continental order, while articulating a clear African outlook for continental political, economic, social and developmemental renewal, yet still in favour of partnership, not paternalistic and patronizing neo-colonialism with the outside world, the industrialised powers in particular. This period saw the creation of a number of key African initiatives, including the African Union, NEPAD and the elevation of the Regional Economic Communities to 'building blocks' of a continental union. The departure from office of most of the leaders who spearheaded these initiatives between 2006 and 2008, however, has left a void in leadership and implementation of the so-called African Agenda. This void has left a vacuum that has coincided with the return of external powers to the African scene. Africa's weakness at home is being exploited by great and emerging powers abroad. This paper seeks to explore the challenges faced by Africans as they struggle to restore the continents agency and leadership in world affairs. It will focus on both inter- and intra-African challenges which makes for undermining this leadership, as well as external factors which continues to reinforce African marginalization from the outside world.

Chris teaches in the Department of Politics at the University of Johannesburg. His main academic interests are in the areas of the politics of policy and foreign policy analysis, and he has published a range of articles and books in the areas of South Africa's foreign policy and Africa's continental policy architecture, and the continent's international relations. He is a former Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, and a Co-founder of the Centre for Africa's International Relations (CAIR) at Wits and is currently working on a research project on South Africa's foreign policy, in which he traces the Republic's diplomatic narratives from 1910 to 2010.

Dr Danielle Beswick (University of Birmingham)

The return of Omnibalancing? A multi-level analysis of strategies for securing agency in post-genocide Rwanda

Reflecting the contention that politics should be seen in systemic perspective, and the need to embed analysis of African states' policies within multiple relevant contexts, this paper adopts a multi-level approach. It will specifically explore the Rwandan regime's interactions with donors, civil society and other African states, arguing that specific policy choices and careful image management since the 1994 genocide have allowed Rwanda to maximise agency in spite of aid dependence. The post-genocide period has seen Rwanda seek to carefully redefine itself, from being considered a source of regional insecurity to a contributor to African peace and security and a bastion of political stability. Though the substance of this redefinition has been questioned, I argue that the process has allowed the Rwandan regime considerable power in a relationship which in pure monetary terms is characterised by extreme inequality. The paper explores how this has been achieved by highlighting policies at three inter-related levels: relationships with donors; relationships with other African states; and relationships with civil society, reflecting a tightly managed political space and a stagnating political settlement. The paper argues that though relationships at each of the levels may be characterised by particular pressures and opportunities for the Rwandan government, they cannot be separated from each other in analysing Rwanda's search for agency. Rwanda's strategy for securing agency and greater independence in decision making instead reflects a degree of 'omnibalancing' with policies at each 'level' designed to send signals to actors working in the others, and overall to create space for greater independence in decision-making.

Danielle is a Lecturer in the International Development Department, University of Birmingham, and Director of the Research Group on Statebuilding in Difficult Environments. She has recently co-edited an edition of Third World Quarterly, with Heather Marquette, bringing together papers from across disciplines on 'Statebuilding, Security and Development' (Oct 2011). Her research focuses primarily on the challenges of building security and democracy in post conflict-states and the role that donors play in this process, particularly focusing on post-genocide Rwanda. In 2011-12 she will undertake research funded by the British Academy exploring the role of ethnicity in post-conflict identity, comparing Rwanda and Sri Lanka. Danielle recently co-authored a textbook with Paul Jackson on Conflict Security and Development (Routledge), and has published articles on Rwanda's role as a 'donor darling', its involvement in peacekeeping, the implications of strategies used for managing dissent after genocide, the impact of the national unity policy on the minority Batwa, and the role of former 'warlords' in statebuilding in DR Congo.

David Williams (City University London)

State Agency and State Formation in Africa

This paper explores the question of what might be meant by a specifically state agency. The paper is primarily theoretical, but it is inspired by recent events in Africa where the question of what is meant by state agency has been posed particularly acutely. The paper argues that the possibility of state agency is inscribed in the theoretical and practical languages of international politics. However, like many of the attributes of states (territory, population etc.) it is one that has to be produced and reproduced through political and other practices. It suggests that we can read the (changing) processes of state-formation and state-building in Africa as attempts to fix a particular set of understandings of what it might mean for a state to act onto African states.

David is Senior Lecturer at City University London. His research interests are in the area of the international relations of development and specifically the connections between development and global governance, and between liberal political theory and the practice of state-building and development. He has recently finished a textbook on International Development and Global Politics (Routledge) and has published widely on the World Bank, good governance, liberalism and domestic transformation.

Papers and Audio

Stefan Andreasson

PDF From Empire and Cold War to the Emerging Markets Century: what can we learn from Africa's persistently peripheral role in International Relations? - (491 KB)

audioListen to the audio clip

Danielle Beswick

PDF The return of Omnibalancing? A multi-level analysis of strategies for securing agency in post-genocide Rwanda - (250 KB)

audioListen to the audio clip

William Brown

PDF Still 'agency in tight corners'? Analytical notes on African agency in international politics - (214 KB)

audioListen to the audio clip

Carl Death

PDF Africa, governmentality, and the international: Reflections on agency and the climate change negotiations - (195 KB)

audioListen to the audio clip

Chris Landsberg

PDF Fractured continentally, undermined abroad: African Agency in world affairs - (77 KB)

audioListen to the audio clip

David Williams

PDF State Agency and State Formation - (74 KB)

audioListen to the audio clip

The podcasts can also be found on iTunes U

BISA Africa and International Studies Working Group