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

What Do Africa and the Arctic Have in Common? A Lot, It Turns Out

| June 03, 2024

As the climate crisis intensifies, demand is surging for minerals needed to manufacture clean energy technologies. In the race to secure supplies of critical minerals, Africa and the Arctic have taken center stage as companies and governments around the world eye their vast mineral deposits. These seemingly disparate regions now face the same question: how to capitalize on their mineral wealth while maximizing the socioeconomic benefits and minimizing the environmental harms of mining.

Belfer fellows, students, and faculty explored the shared challenges and opportunities faced by both regions at an April community networking event hosted by the Belfer Center’s Africa Futures Project (AFP) and Arctic Initiative. AFP Co-Chair Professor Zoe Marks and Arctic Initiative Director Jennifer Spence provided an overview of the dynamics unfolding in both regions around the energy transition, resource management, and great power competition. Participants then broke into small groups to discuss other commonalities and misconceptions. 

Insights from the session, summarized below, will inform the research priorities of AFP and the Arctic Initiative over the coming year.

Zoe Marks and Jennifer Spence

Zoe Marks (left) and Jennifer Spence (right) kicked off the discussion with an overview of the dynamics unfolding in both regions around the energy transition, resource management, and great power competition. (Photo: Elizabeth Hanlon/Belfer Center)

On the Geopolitical Margins

Africa and the Arctic have been and continue to be marginalized in global economic and political systems. In the current geopolitical context, crises in Ukraine and the Middle East have overshadowed African and Arctic affairs.

This marginalization manifests itself in the language used to talk about Africa and the Arctic. Too often Africa and the Arctic are described as uninhabited wilderness, “wastes” or “deserts,” said Spence. If people are mentioned, they are portrayed as monolithic groups.

While Africa and the Arctic do encompass some of the largest intact wilderness areas left on Earth, both regions exhibit staggering environmental, social, cultural, and economic diversity - diversity that has “been undervalued by the ruling global powers,” said Marks. All of this diversity, added Spence, means that “the needs, interests, and priorities of African and Arctic peoples are often hyper-context-specific.”

Both regions have contributed negligibly to global warming but are bearing the brunt of climate change. The Arctic is warming 3 to 4 times faster than the global average, and the United Nations Environment Programme has called Africa the most climate-vulnerable region in the world due to high levels of poverty. In both regions, rising temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather are threatening human health, food and water security, livelihoods, and cultures.

Skyrocketing Interest in Natural Resources

While African and Arctic countries struggle to adapt to the impacts of the growing climate crisis, they are also contending with a dramatic shift in the demand for and value of their raw material assets. The demand boom risks entrenching commodity dependence and worsening economic vulnerabilities and environmental degradation.

The African continent has over a fifth of the world’s known reserves of over a dozen critical energy transition minerals. The African mining sector is dominated by China, which has mining operations in multiple African countries. The United States is seeking to loosen China’s stranglehold on critical mineral supply chains by increasing investment in Africa, such as reviving the Lobito Corridor.

Regional competition for energy resources, too, have led to disputes between African countries. For example, Ethiopia’s controversial Renaissance Dam, Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam project, has raised tensions with neighboring Egypt and Sudan, which rely on the Nile River for fresh water. While the Renaissance Dam is expected to double Ethiopia’s electricity production and drastically increase the country’s digital connectivity, the project would significantly reduce the water available to communities downstream.

In the Arctic, the energy transition is fueling an explosion of mining proposals. Norway recently greenlighted commercial deep-sea mining in its Arctic waters, and Greenland’s abundant reserves of rare earths has attracted overtures by China and the United States, including a 2019 declaration by Donald Trump that the United States should buy Greenland. To date, the Arctic’s harsh environment, lack of infrastructure, and local opposition have deterred much investment in mining, but climate change is expected to expand access to mineral resources, as well as oil, gas, fisheries, and shipping routes.

Legacies of Colonization

Africa and the Arctic share a common history of “outsiders” investing in regional development, leaving behind colonial legacies and systems not fit for purpose. During the Second Industrial Revolution, Western European powers divided up the African continent in what was referred to as the “Scramble for Africa.” By 1914, 90% of the continent was under formal European control. In most instances, the control took the form of proprietary rule, which allowed rulers to treat African countries as colonial possessions and exploit their resources and populations for personal gain.

During this time, colonizing countries extracted wealth while neglecting the development of local communities. As a result, even after African countries established their independence, they remained vulnerable to neocolonialism and the perpetuated economic or political dependency on their former colonial powers, which impeded their ability to establish true autonomy and sustainable development.

Marks explained that modern African governments are largely built on colonial systems, resulting in tensions over decentralization and power-sharing within countries. As an example, she pointed to oil and gas development, which are so capital-intensive that communities cannot profit from them without partnering with the central government.

A key difference between colonization in Africa and the Arctic, Spence noted, is that in the Arctic, colonization is largely an internal process, occurring when national governments in southern capitals take interest in the northern regions of the same state. “This ‘domestic’ colonialism is less visible to external observers, especially because it is taking place in countries that are considered highly developed,” said Spence. She cited a recent example in which the Norwegian government allowed a partially state-owned wind farm to continue operating for two years, despite a ruling by the Norwegian Supreme Court that the installation violated the land rights of the Sámi people.

There is increasing recognition of the need for local decision-making and agency in both regions, but implementation has met with mixed success. Spence highlighted that Arctic Indigenous Peoples “punch above their weight” in terms of influencing policy, thanks to their impressive, long-term commitment to participating in local, regional, and international governance through fora like the Arctic Council. Marks lamented the lack of a similar multilateral institution between African countries, but she was heartened by the fact that many parts of Africa are not yet locked into extractive Western models, such as land privatization. “Africa is still poised to do better than the West in many ways,” said Marks.

Cautionary Tales

Taken together, these emerging trends - the global race for critical minerals, regional competition for energy resources, and a willingness by governments to pretend that large swathes of Africa and the Arctic are empty - could lead to a frontier mentality that sells short the value of people and assets and fails to benefit local communities.

“Conversations about U.S. interests in Africa make me nervous,” said Marks. “It is troubling to talk about external interests in a region where local interests have been ignored. When someone says that Africa and the Arctic are important, we should ask why they are important, and to whom.”

At the same time, both Spence and Marks cautioned against continuing to marginalize these regions. “When we center spaces that have historically been valued less, we get a more diverse set of tools and approaches,” said Marks. “By ignoring Africa and the Arctic, there is a risk that the world will miss solutions to pressing issues.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hanlon, Elizabeth and Tessa Varvares.“What Do Africa and the Arctic Have in Common? A Lot, It Turns Out.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 3, 2024.

The Authors