What Is Africa's Economic Role in the World? What Are Africa's Unique Selling Points? Agriculture? Minerals? A Place Where Stuff Comes out of the Earth Aplenty? What Does the Global Economy Think Africa Exists for? the Ministers Who Met in Cancun, Mexico, (10-14 September), Were Not Supposed to Mull over Such Things

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Cancun will come to what? Dare I say, "Not a lot"? Not a lot. Drifts and drags. Nothing to write home about. Send a memo not a postcard from Cancun. Memo of Misappropriation to an African country: "Dear X, How are you? Feeling bad, I hope. By the way, you are going nowhere. Y sends his dislike. Worst wishes, Z".

Can we get it through our heads? They--the "major", "advanced", "industrial" economies--do not want to do business with us. If they did, they would.

The avoided, unmentionable, but underlying question for Africans, and for the World Trade Organisation's Doha round of development talks, is this: What is Africa's economic role in the world to be?

What are Africa's unique selling points? Agriculture? Minerals? A place where stuff comes out of the earth aplenty? What does the global economy think Africa exists for? The ministers who met in Mexico were not supposed to mull over such things.

Why do I feel that other people's bulging bank accounts and empty heads would like Africa to be an arts and crafts basket case set in a safari theme park? With the occasional thing in the ground and in the sea to be extracted and exploited.

Everybody knows how to make money out of Africa--except for Africans. Any Tom, Chuck, Rajiv or Haruki manages it daily. It is rubbish when foreigners say, "It's too risky." What they mean is: "I don't want to spend my money there and I'm not going to. Somebody get me a map of Eastern Europe."

People who can be bothered to do business in Africa do so profitably. There has always been--and will continue to be--big money in those "big dick" industries like oil, gas, mining, construction, telecommunications, IT, etc. Industries where there are lots of nuts and bolts and pipes and wires and masts and steel and concrete and things to press in the right sequence.

Extract and make a run for it. Construct and take off. Menget-rich-quick schemes. But these "sexy" male-run industries do not actually make for healthy, sensible, diverse African economies. For that you need plenty of ordinary, boring, unsexy industries that require ordinary, boring credit lines and boringly routine investments which do not make the front pages of the business press.

Where should this yawn making yet fundamental money, investment and support come from? America does it. Europe does it. The UK does it. Japan does it. I'm sure the birds and the bees do it. Trade with their neighbours more than with anybody else. You have to, should, deal with your neighbours the most.

Let's look at the world's largest economy. America's biggest trading partner is Canada. It does nearly a quarter of its trade with Canadians. After them, it's Mexico with 14% of US trade. Check the map and check the three countries' locations.

Places like Japan, the UK, China, come well after Mexico in America's business books. (As for the Canadians, that trade with America is worth 87% of Canada's foreign earnings).

The world's leading economy knows the value of sitting around the table with its neighbours and talking business. And so do many other countries. Britain in Europe. Japan and China in Asia.

But not in Africa. Oh no. Africans don't seem to like doing much business with other Africans. Even if the benefits of so doing are screamingly obvious. Why is this?

Is the problem that they are physically prevented--appalling intra-country infrastructure; lots of customs duties, taxes--from carrying out business with people living on the same continent?

Pushing up intra-African trade substantially has to become the main focus for regional and economic blocs such as SADC and ECOWAS. And NEPAD's priority must be to find out how African countries can be galvanised into doing more deals with other African states. How can regional kingpins--like South Africa and Nigeria--boost economic activity on the continent?

But are there other, less obvious, problems? …