Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Beyond the Headlines: A Kaleidoscopic Exploration of Contemporary African Politics and International Cooperation

| June 21, 2024

Takeaways from the "Africa Beyond the Headlines" study group.

Africa is at a pivotal moment. As the continent continues to experience dynamic change, a timely opportunity has emerged for the United States to recalibrate its relationships with individual countries across the continent.  Strengthening U.S.-Africa ties necessitates embracing partnerships that are directly centered on African realities. With youthful populations, abundant resources, and growing economic and technological capacity, Africa holds solutions to global challenges from food security to climate change, solutions which have largely been ignored by Western nations. Yet inclusive, sustainable development in Africa largely depends on international cooperation and respecting the role that African leaderships plays in decision-making and addressing the continent’s problems.[i] As the United States begins to move beyond outdated policies, it will be in the best position to craft a foreign policy agenda that more closely aligns with the profound transformation that is occurring in Africa.

By exploring the powerful shifts that are shaping Africa’s complex political landscape today, collaborative relationships can be forged which will meet this decisive moment in history. Through trade, investments in clean energy and health, and a strong focus on youth empowerment initiatives grounded in mutual understanding and respect for African priorities and autonomy, the United States can develop a more equitable partnership with African nations. This will help address shared global challenges like pandemics, climate change, and economic instability, while also supporting Africa’s sustainable development goals. Open and informed discussions that include diverse perspectives are vital for designing solutions that will strengthen resilience from within African countries. If the United States recalibrates its foreign policy approach to dealing with African nations in this spirit of partnership, the future of U.S.-Africa ties can potentially have a positive effect for the African continent specifically, and for our interconnected world at large.

In Spring 2024, with support from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, I organized an intensive five-session study group at the Harvard Kennedy School as part of the Africa Futures Project Initiative. The study group brought together students, researchers, and practitioners from diverse backgrounds, and our goal was to explore contemporary issues that are shaping African politics, economics, and international cooperation. Through discussions that fostered a more comprehensive understanding of Africa’s sociopolitical climate and the implications on the continent’s future, the hope was to engage nuanced, multifaceted perspectives on the opportunities and challenges facing African governments and organizations and their global partners. Over the course of our discussions — which were informed by background readings and guided by guest experts[ii] — several cross-cutting lessons emerged. A link to the complete summaries of each study group session can be found at the end of this piece.[iii]

Democratic Transitions and Conflict Zones: The Impact on Policy-Making in Africa

The first session examined recent democratic progress and backsliding in Africa, and explored the effect of political transitions on governance capacity and policy formulation. We focused on ongoing conflicts in different regions of Africa, outlined their political underpinnings, and considered how these conflicts influence policy decisions. A key takeaway that emerged from the discussions was that political instability often undermines development gains. Countries like Côte d’Ivoire that maintained stability under strong, yet inclusive, leadership have been able to achieve rapid economic growth, which clearly highlights the importance of good governance. It is important to note, however, that authoritarian tendencies are also escalating across the continent, and models of democracy may need to be reevaluated to better reflect specific issues that arise in local contexts. The majority of African countries are neither fully democratic or authoritarian regimes, but exist in a gray area with hybrid forms of government.[iv] Some examples of hybrid regimes include Egypt, Rwanda, and Uganda, which hold elections but suppress any political opposition and criticism of the ruling party. As such, there are ongoing debates about whether these types of governments can deliver beneficial development outcomes, or if there is the need for open competition to increase the likelihood of long-term stability and prosperity. Regional organizations like the African Union also struggle to take a unified stance on issues of democracy and human rights given the diversity of political systems across the continent. Africa remains in a transitional phase with uneven progress being made in democratic consolidation and the strengthening of governance institutions.

Global Players: The Role of International Humanitarian Organizations in Africa

The second session examined the role of international humanitarian groups in shaping political and social outcomes in Africa by considering how these organizations deal with emergencies, crises, and conflict situations across the continent, and scrutinizing their influence on policy decisions. Of particular interest in our discussion were the potential benefits and drawbacks of the involvement of these humanitarian organizations. According to estimates from the United Nations, ongoing emergencies affect over 300 million people worldwide, with funding shortfalls severely constraining humanitarian response efforts. In the Sahel region of Africa alone, which includes Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria, more than 35 million people are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.[v] Conflict, political instability, and climate-related disasters like droughts and floods have exacerbated food insecurity and poverty across the region in recent years.

While many international NGOs have begun decentralizing some of their operations and building local capacity and partnerships with community-based organizations, advancing measures that emphasize closer collaboration with governments and affected communities will be the key to strengthening resilience against compounding global and local risks like the worsening effects of climate change. Donor policies from wealthier nations and international institutions must also be reexamined to support more holistic crisis prevention, preparedness, and resilience-building efforts that can address underlying socioeconomic and environmental vulnerabilities. Simply focusing on short-term emergency aid will not be sufficient, as climate impacts are projected to increase the frequency and severity of humanitarian crises across Africa in the coming decades. Long-term sustainable development and peacebuilding initiatives will be equally important across the continent to reduce humanitarian needs in the future.

Politics and Prosperity: Examining Economic Development in Africa

The third session explored connections between politics and economic growth trajectories across Africa by centering the relationship between politics and economic development, and examining the role of political stability in fostering economic growth. Our discussion of the politics-economy nexus reinforced the point that stability enables growth. It was also helpful to assess the impact of factors like commodity markets, foreign aid, trade deals, and regional integration initiatives on development indicators. For example, Côte d’Ivoire’s “miracle” — achieving sustained economic growth and prosperity after independence — unraveled due to armed conflict in the country, resulting from ethnic and regional tensions, corruption, the spread of nativist and xenophobic discourse, and impunity among other things. 

Terrorism has also exploited economic woes, and has stunted economic development in Côte d’Ivoire by destabilizing border regions critical for trade, consequently discouraging foreign investment through persistent security threats. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its related groups are primarily responsible for the terrorist attacks in Côte d’Ivoire in recent years.[vi] A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) uncovered concerning connections between terrorist organizations and local economies in West Africa. Through illegal taxation and extortion of pastoral communities and artisanal gold miners, violent extremist groups have embedded themselves in the regional livestock and mining industries.[vii] Terrorist cells have leveraged these economic activities to generate funds for their operations and recruit new members. The ISS report brought urgent attention to this under-recognized aspect of the threat posed by terror networks in the region. By gradually infiltrating themselves into livelihoods and exploiting vulnerable populations, these groups have gained influence and resources that strengthen their hold on local communities. West African governments now face the challenge of disrupting these financial and recruitment pipelines while also supporting alternative economic opportunities for at-risk communities. A close examination of the dynamics at play in reveals that the livestock and mining sectors may provide valuable insight for bolstering targeted counterterrorism strategies.[viii]

Similarly, as reported by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), terrorist groups have positioned themselves to spread further across Africa, particularly in West Africa, as they have actively ingrained themselves into local communities and consistently undermined regional attempts to constrain their reach. With limited means to confront these transnational dangers using conventional security forces, governments have turned more to employing local militias and private military companies. However, engaging these alternative security apparatuses has been challenging because of their capacity, dedication, and ability to coordinate effectively. The integration of terrorist organizations into the social fabric and persistent circumvention of containment plans has empowered violent extremist groups to expand their control, since the improvised security responses lack the resources and coordination that are needed to impede this expansion.[ix] It is important to note that regional integration and pragmatic cooperation between states is a critical factor for reducing vulnerabilities. Relationships between international state and non-state actors must also balance geopolitical influences with the needs and autonomy of their African partners.

Climate Change: Political Implications and Policy Response in Africa

The fourth session addressed the pressing issue of climate change and its political implications in Africa, and highlighted the disproportionate impact of the climate emergency on African nations. As we evaluated how governments are responding to climate crises through policy measures, it was particularly helpful to consider avenues for solutions-oriented efforts, rather than simply highlighting the vulnerabilities of African nations. We discussed the policies needed to mitigate the effects of climate change, the political hurdles in implementing them, considered opportunities for formulating adaptive strategies, and outlined policy innovations and governance reforms that should be adopted to strengthen resilience. 

Although climate change poses a particularly severe risk to Africa due to the continent’s dependence on climate-sensitive sectors, concerns about its devastating effects should also spur discussions on how to leverage green growth opportunities. Rising climate dangers threaten to undermine core development goals in Africa by jeopardizing food supplies, damaging ecosystems, exacerbating poverty, stifling economic expansion, and endangering public health.[x] With adequate support, African countries can capitalize on their abundant renewable energy resources to transition away from fossil fuels and develop more sustainable and resilient economies. Innovative public-private financing mechanisms are urgently needed to mobilize large-scale private sector investment in renewable power generation as well as climate-smart infrastructure like flood defenses, drought-resistant crops, and efficient water systems. To access these opportunities, African states will require assistance navigating the complex application processes for global climate funds and developing strong domestic capital markets, green banks, and regulatory frameworks that incentivize low-carbon investment. International development partners could also assist by sharing technical expertise on project development, risk mitigation, and innovative financing structures. With the right enabling policies and blended finance models, Africa’s transition to renewable energy and climate-resilient development pathways has the potential to drive sustainable economic growth while strengthening the continent’s ability to adapt to the ongoing effects of a changing climate.

Healthcare in Focus: Political Hurdles and Policy Progress in Africa

In the final session, we examined healthcare access policies and public health initiatives across Africa, reflecting on the politics of health and healthcare policy, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we identified political barriers to expanding healthcare coverage and access, the dialogue centered on areas of progress in addressing infectious and chronic diseases. Beyond focusing on the challenges in implementing effective healthcare policies, we were interested in highlighting specific policy solutions.

Expanding universal healthcare access across Africa will involve overcoming some significant challenges. Government officials and policymakers need to address skepticism around increased public spending on healthcare given competing development priorities and fiscal constraints. They also need to curb the problem of “brain drain” of qualified medical workers who migrate abroad in search of better pay and working conditions. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), over 75 percent of Africa is facing issues of insufficient medical staffing and high emigration rates of healthcare workers. Estimates indicate that by 2030, Africa will be facing a projected shortage of health workers totaling approximately 6.1 million people.[xi]

Another major obstacle to consider is the over-reliance on piecemeal donor-funded health programs that are unsustainable in the long term. The response from several African countries to the COVID-19 pandemic highlights some significant strengths, and should be applauded and further developed. Even with limited resources, most African countries responded quickly and appropriately to the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing that they have sufficient capacity for developing country-appropriate solutions.[xii] Primary healthcare systems, although under-resourced, generally proved resilient in conducting contact tracing, screening, and case management. Regional cooperation on issues like vaccine distribution also revealed the benefits of more collective approaches to healthcare capacity crisis preparedness. 

Investing in training and incentivizing health workers to remain in their home countries may help strengthen primary care. Boosting domestic vaccine production through technology transfers and partnerships between pharmaceutical firms and African research institutions also offers opportunities. Growing private sector engagement in healthcare provision, medical supply chains, health insurance, and drug manufacturing could also complement public healthcare systems. Harnessing these strengths, while addressing long-standing weaknesses through strategic policy reforms and sustainable financing models, will be the key to achieving universal health coverage across the continent in the coming decades.

Key Takeaways

An in-depth exploration of the political, economic, and social landscape in Africa reveals the complexity and diversity of development-related issues and other concerns across the continent. Through engaged discussions and analysis of on-the-ground realities, scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and government officials can gain a more nuanced understanding of the main issues facing the continent today. The following are some key insights that emerged from the study group discussions. Sustained dialogue, multifaceted approaches, and partnerships that take local contexts and realities fully into account can help craft more collaborative, mutually beneficial solutions to address shared global challenges broadly, but also specifically support African governments and local communities. Political stability, inclusive governance, and conflict prevention can effectively lay the groundwork for development across Africa, but achieving these goals remains immensely challenging. Fragile states and those that have been plagued by conflict continue to struggle with weak state institutions, violence, human rights abuses, corruption, and political repression, which will ultimately undermine stability and social cohesion for individual nations. This in turn exacerbates humanitarian crises by reducing resilience to external shocks like climate change impacts or global health crises and pandemics. Climate change, in particular, threatens to increase food insecurity, natural disasters, resource competition, and public health emergencies in Africa if adaptation efforts are not significantly scaled up.

Fostering economic development in Africa will depend not only on stability at the national level, but also increased regional cooperation to expand trade, pool resources, and address common threats like terrorism that transcend borders. However, many nations across the continent continue to face high levels of poverty and unemployment, and risk further instability if these issues are not addressed through job creation. Sustainable development models must also be considered and implemented to harness Africa’s economic potential through investment in strategic sectors and green industries that can drive growth while building climate resilience over the long-term.

Cross-cutting issues like public health, climate change, and democratic transition intersect with both domestic development agendas and global partnerships. While support from international state and non-state actors plays a critical role, it is imperative to prioritize African-led solutions that strengthen autonomy and address common local vulnerabilities, like underfunding of social services and infrastructure due to limited domestic revenues. External influence, if not carefully managed, can undermine autonomy and political stability and undoubtedly weaken governance reforms and nationally-defined development priorities. As global challenges intensify with events like the pandemic and war in Ukraine, it is important to have informed discussions about how to best support development priorities from within African societies. This study group on African politics an international cooperation emphasized the value of filling knowledge gaps to inform more collaborative, mutually beneficial partnerships going forward. The information shared by guest experts and the engaged conversations that characterized each session highlighted the need for sustained, multidisciplinary exploration of the realities on the continent. By fostering dialogue that brings varied perspectives to the fore, it is possible to design nuanced solutions to support Africa’s development from within its diverse societies.



[i] United Nations. 2024. “Security Council Calls for Strengthening Africa’s Role in Addressing Global Security, Development Challenges, Adopting Presidential Statement ahead of Day-long Debate” (24 May 2024). 

[ii] The study group was privileged to have the participation of well-regarded authorities in their fields. We are grateful for the contributions of the following individuals: Dr. Antje Herrberg, Chief of Staff of the European Union Capacity Building Mission in Niger; Sabs K. Quereshi, senior-level leader in global health and gender equality; H.E. Patrick Achi, former Prime Minister of Côte d’Ivoire; Ely Sandler, Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Dr. Salma Abdalla, Assistant Professor in Global Health and Epidemiology at Boston University.

[iii] Study group session summaries were authored by Alejandro Martín Rodríguez, Belfer Young Leader Student Fellow (2023-2024), who assisted with the study group.

[iv] Basedau, Matthias. 2023. “Under Pressure: Democratisation Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa.” German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA). GIGA Focus Africa, Number 4, 2023. ISSN: 1862-3603

[v] European Commission. 2024. “EU Allocates €201 Million in Humanitarian Aid for Sahel and Africa’s Lake Chad Countries.” 

[vi] European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). “Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel.”

[vii] Assanvo, William. 2023. “Côte d’Ivoire Must Cut Ties Between Terrorists and Illicit Markets.” Institute for Security Studies.

[viii] Assanvo, William. 2023. “Côte d’Ivoire Must Cut Ties Between Terrorists and Illicit Markets.” Institute for Security Studies.

[ix] Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). 2021. “Five-Year Regional Outlook: Sub-Saharan Africa.” Global Trends (February 2021).

[xi] Ahmat, Adam, Sunny C. Okoroafor, Isabel Kazanga, James Avoka Asamani, Jean Jacques Salvador Millogo, Mourtala Mahaman Abdou Illou, Kasonde Mwinga, Jennifer Nyoni. 2022. “The Health Workforce Status in the WHO African Region: Findings of a Cross-Sectional Study.” BMJ Global Health. 2022 May; 7(Suppl 1):e008317. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2021-008317. PMID: 35675966; PMCID: PMC9109011.

[xii] World Health Organization (WHO). 2022. “Africa’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Summary of Country Reports (January 2020 – December 2021).”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ayee, Gloria Yayra A.“Beyond the Headlines: A Kaleidoscopic Exploration of Contemporary African Politics and International Cooperation.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 21, 2024.