Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi briefs media representatives in Islamabad on March 1, 2020. His ministry supports a new 'Engage Africa' policy. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

Any diplomatic endeavor devoid of economic cooperation is a hollow attempt at making contact with the world. Without economic cooperation as the backbone of diplomacy, it is very hard to translate promises into reality.

This has been the driving force behind Pakistan’s new “Engage Africa” policy. The vision is to build a sustainable partnership through economic diplomacy.

Ties between Pakistan and Africa are not anything new. Their mutual history of suffering under the yoke of colonialism is an inspiring tale.

A common history of struggle

After Pakistan gained independence in 1947, it vehemently supported the liberation movements of several African countries such as Morocco, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Namibia. But it is high time now to build on this historic partnership by focusing on the possibility of economic cooperation between Pakistan and the African countries.

Wheels are already running fast on this. Last November, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce in Pakistan collaborated to organized a two-day Envoys’ Conference on an “Engage Africa” policy. The conference stressed the need to increase outreach to the African countries building upon the foundation of Pakistan’s past ties to achieve mutual benefits of economic inter-connectivity.

Engagement and connectivity

The first step for Pakistan was to formulate a policy of engagement with the African continent that is in harmony with the thrust of its developmental goals.

Pakistan has recently seen a surge in economic activity through its participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Africa have also stimulated economic activity in countries across the continent in the form of a 2,600-megawatt hydropower scheme in Nigeria, US$3 billion worth of telecom equipment for Ethiopia, Sudan and Ghana, and major railroad projects in Nigeria, Gabon and Mauritania.

Pakistan has also opened up its markets to Chinese investment in the infrastructure, transport, communication and energy sectors. This has helped create more jobs and has given rise to new businesses. African countries must also be invited to explore CPEC projects for potential business and investment opportunities.

Trade ties between Pakistan and Africa are also in severe need of a boost. in 2018, annual African trade was $1.075 trillion while its trade volume with Pakistan stood at $4.8 billion in 2019, which is unflattering to say the least.

A wealth of opportunity

Besides being rich in natural resources, Pakistan and Africa have also been blessed with a wealth of youth. Young people are instrumental in shaping the future of any country or region in the world. It must be a top priority to educate this massive human resource.

Encouraging youth on both sides to interact through student exchange programs, scholarships, webinars and sharing of cultural and creative content is important for deeper cooperation. While many of our African brothers and sisters may not know about it yet, a steady discourse on engagement with Africa is already under way within Pakistan.

Defense, academic, diplomatic cooperation

Academics and experts working on Africa within Pakistan have advised about exploring other options to strengthen ties with African countries such as academic endeavors. One example is that of Dr Rukhsana Siddiqui, former postdoctoral fellow at Yale. Admiring the exquisitely layered nature of African affairs, she said, “Research in Africa provides the opportunity to test different academic theories in both regions.”

The government in Pakistan is taking on board the advice of all such experts. On the diplomatic front, six new missions in Algeria, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, Sudan and Tanzania have also been announced.

However, all such measures will prove fruitless until there is an incentive of economic benefits. There is keenness on both sides to cooperate. That was evident from the overwhelming participation of more than 200 delegates and businesspeople from 28 African countries at the Nairobi Trade Conference held this year.

Tremendous potential also exists in the domain of defense cooperation. Pakistan is also a major contributor to various UN peacekeeping missions within Africa. Both Pakistan and Africa have learned valuable lessons in dealing with terrorism, which must be shared for mutual benefits on both sides.

Overall, there exists an abundance of opportunities to explore when it comes to mutual cooperation. However, the way to do it is through economic diplomacy. It is important to provide economic incentive to populations on both sides to ensure an optimum level of cooperation.

Without concrete economic connectivity, trade and joint projects, the promise for a wholesome partnership will only remain a promise at best.

Fatima Raza is a research associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. She holds an MPhil in international relations.