Brazil shows Africa what is possible
This past week the Washington-based Centre for Transatlantic Relations hosted the founding meeting of the Atlantic Basin initiative in São Paulo. Several ideas lie behind this initiative. One is geographic, to link states that share a common "boundary" of the Atlantic Ocean, a basin that accounts for not less than two thirds of global trade and finance.
Another is to link states that share values as well as interests, principally democracy, human rights and economic openness. There is not only a need to protect the gains made across the region in political and developmental terms, but also to extend these in addressing ongoing challenges - including criminality, maritime security and energy - around which practical consensus has proved elusive.
And a third is to try to address the impasse that confounds contemporary international relations, including the Doha trade round or environmental management, in developing an approach that breaks the link (or at least better matches) development and natural resource use.
These problems are not likely to be resolved by a system where interests count more than values, where fragmentation defines the global scene, and where problem-solving requires (but seldom achieves) better integration between government and other actors.
Hence the Atlantic Basin's approach to rely on nongovernmental "eminent persons" who, from Africa, included Nigeria's ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and from Latin America, North America and Europe a multitude of former ministers and businesspeople, including former US governor and secretary of energy Bill Richardson.
As the former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, who chaired the event, noted, most challenges today are political in nature. When politics improves, countries grow and develop, such as across many states in Latin America, from Chile to Colombia, but notably not including Argentina, which remains blighted by cyclical crises.
And where "all economic problems", as he put it, "are political problems, all political problems need a political response".
From an African perspective, the Atlantic Basin initiative has a number of advantages.
The 2000s saw Africa enjoy its best post-independence growth decade on record. But not only is this still well below its potential, it's not fast enough to meet the financial requirements and employment aspirations especially of its burgeoning number of young people.
The hosting of the inaugural event in Brazil reminds one perfectly of Africa's relative decline.
A little over 10 years ago, Anglo American came within a whisker of purchasing Vale, the Brazilian natural resource producer. Then Anglo was three times the size of Vale. The deal foundered on a combination of the contemporary Anglo fascination with London and the related lack of appetite on a "third world deal", and the chauvinism of Brazilian nationalism favouring a local consortium.
Today Vale is worth three times Anglo's market cap.
Brazil's overall progress spells out the good lessons that can be learnt: the need, foremost, for growth; the importance of parallel social reforms (including Bolsa Familia, the cash transfer scheme to poor families whose children attend school and receive health checks); and the political management of painful economic reforms.
With growth averaging over 4% in the 2000s, Brazil has overtaken the UK as the world's sixth-largest economy.
The origin of this performance is in the privatisations of the 1990s, which not only ended the state's dominance of commerce, but opened up space for entrepreneurs. In contrast, controlling that space remains a foremost priority of many African governments, and seldom for good, altruistic reasons.
Coupled with growth in Chinese demand, Brazilian agriculture and mining have taken off.
Agriculture and agro-industry now account for a quarter of Brazilian GDP and more than a third of exports. Brazil is the world's largest producer of sugar cane, coffee and tropical fruits, and has the largest beef herd.
The result is that most people in Brazil are now considered middle class, and less than 10% live below the poverty line. Its economy is worth $2.5-trillion (for its 200 million people) compared with sub-Saharan Africa's $1.1-trillion for more than four times the number of people - and where South Africa and Nigeria together account for half of economic wealth.
Brazil shows Africa what is possible.
Latin America also usefully highlights the downside. Argentina's nationalisation of the YPF oil company the same week as the Atlantic dialogue is not only an act of remarkable economic value destruction, but an indicator that the more extreme debates around economic planning still have powerful followers. This is true in Africa, where the political terrain remains heated with the debate about resource nationalism.
So how might an Atlantic Basin scheme cut through and not add to the institutional clutter of vacuous summits?
Its first strength is in being a "new world notion", in inviting those with shared values as well as interests, and in being primarily nongovernmental, less constrained by nationalism. It offers a place where sound politics and technical solutions could productively intersect, and where its members bring their personal influence to bear in realising solutions and opportunities.
Much to his surprise, Dr Mills attended the São Paulo meeting as an eminent person