Russia’s war on Ukraine is throttling global supplies of critical agri-food commodities. Taken together, the two countries account for 53 per cent of the world’s trade in sunflower oil and 27 per cent of its trade in wheat. The growing threat to global food security has prompted protectionist export bans and a sharp rise in the prices of both products.
Africa is far more dependent than most continents on Russian and Ukrainian food exports: 25 African countries import more than one-third of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia; 15 African countries import more than half. For African economies still reeling from pandemic-induced disruption, the price hikes are a crushing blow.
European policymakers could be tempted to focus on other issues related to the war before they address the food crisis. But the topic deserves immediate attention. This is because, at a time when China and Russia are working to increase their influence in Africa at Europe’s expense, the crisis provides an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the Africa-Europe partnership.
As shown by African countries’ votes on a recent UN resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, Europe should be concerned about the state of its relations with Africa. Although European diplomats lobbied African countries to support the resolution, many of them abstained, voted against it, or did not participate in the vote. Hard-line European policymakers – a vocal minority – argue that there should be consequences for African states that did not support the resolution. One option would be to cut aid to those that voted against it. But this would mistake vengefulness for an interest-oriented strategic response.
Lessons from the pandemic response in Africa
There are several parallels between the current food crisis and the scramble for covid-19 vaccines in the early days of the pandemic. Europe treated vaccine provision to Africa as a charity effort, while Russia and China made it about interests. From the charitable motive flowed a humanitarian response: the COVAX initiative, a multilateral mechanism to pool global resources. While Europe framed the issue as a humanitarian obligation to Africa, Russia and China treated vaccines as a means of building up their influence on the continent. This is how the geopoliticisation of vaccines in Africa came about.
Europe should apply the lessons of that experience to its response to the food crisis. In doing so, European leaders should try to understand how China and Russia transformed vaccine donations into a geopolitical commodity and why Europe’s charity-driven response created a backlash in Africa.
The moral argument for European vaccine distribution centred on equitable access to a global public good. European policymakers publicly embraced the humanitarian and moral rationale but, as vaccine supplies were limited, there was a great deal of tension between their domestic obligations and their foreign commitments. Predictably, domestic obligations won out.
African leaders were angered by the fact that Europe’s approach to vaccine donations put their countries at the back of the queue. They responded by pushing for an African-led solution to the crisis. But, when they asked for free access to vaccine patents, European governments claimed they were unable to compel pharmaceutical companies to grant this. The episode only reinforced the widespread perception of European hypocrisy on the issue.
Russia and China spotted an opportunity to gain a competitive edge. They did so partly by avoiding multilateralism. This served the dual purpose of weakening the multilateral response of Europe and the West while, in the same stroke, raising the profile of their bilateral assistance. They also prioritised strategic communication. Capitalising on the advantage of national branding – which is more recognisable than amorphous multilateral aid – the media promotion of their vaccine deliveries was as important as the supplies themselves.
But, ultimately, it was Europe’s hypocrisy that made the Russian and Chinese vaccine strategies so effective: Europe called for equity in the distribution of vaccines while simultaneously hoarding doses and denying Africa the means to manufacture them for itself. In contrast, Russia and China put the needs of African states (and other developing countries) ahead of their domestic obligations. While Europe hoarded, Russia and China exported. In this way, the two countries did not need to make more donations than Europe or provide free access to their vaccine patents (which, due to their questionable quality, were not in demand). Beijing and Moscow only needed to point out that, while Europe failed to fulfil its commitments, they were prioritising Africa’s needs. Although the West was the greatest global contributor of vaccines (quantitively and qualitatively), it lost the battle of narratives.
It is important to remember that the food crisis follows on the heels of the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic, which led to a rapid increase in African countries’ debts. European states’ shortcomings in the supply of vaccines and then their response to that debt crisis could help create a narrative in which they are seen as responsible for the threat to global food security (however inaccurate that may be). The food crisis will continue for some time to come. Given that scarcity-driven price rises will have some of their worst effects in Africa, it will be natural to channel anger into blame. China is already developing a narrative in which Europe’s economic war on Russia is the proximate cause of the food crisis.
A new geopolitical approach
One major difference between the scramble for vaccines and the food crisis is that, this time, China does not have the resources to compete with Europe. China would normally seize the opportunity to build up its influence, but it cannot play geopolitics with its stocks of agri-food commodities, which are already coming under strain. With vaccines, Beijing could place its geopolitical goals above its domestic obligations. But it sees domestic food security as more of an existential issue. Accordingly, China will tend to its domestic needs before all else.
Russia is a different story. The Kremlin identified its strength in food security even before its all-out invasion of Ukraine, coining the phrase “wheat diplomacy”. Russia’s recent warning that it would only supply agri-food commodities to its friends speaks for itself. The current obstacles to Russia’s instrumentalisation of food security – shipping and harvest disruptions – will not last long. Western sanctions on Russia’s agricultural trade would have a more significant impact, but would not halt Russia’s exports forever.
While Russia clearly intends to use its agricultural sector for geopolitical gain, the Western bloc – Canada, Australia, the United States, and Europe – is collectively well-positioned to assist Africa with surplus food stocks and, eventually, longer-term solutions. The West should consider how to use this important asset strategically. It would be a mistake to relegate this issue to interest-free humanitarian action. Rather, the West should marry the humanitarian with the strategic.
How should Europe respond?
Firstly, Europe should address these issues immediately. Rather than wait for the food crisis to reach a crescendo and react to pleas from Africa, Europe should communicate its intent to act now and frame its approach as born of mutual interest – not charity. This would demonstrate Europe’s commitment to a partnership of equals.
Secondly, Europe should recognise that it will be impossible to cooperate with China and Russia on the issue. European leaders should form a coalition of the willing to deal with the food security crisis, allowing their international partners to join the effort where possible. An added geopolitical advantage of this approach is that it would open the door to countries that have not sided with Europe, China, or Russia – such as India and the United Arab Emirates. These undecided states are currently navigating between rival geopolitical blocs. The fact that this is partly a humanitarian issue should reduce the cost of alignment with Europe.
Thirdly, as with the scramble for vaccines, African states want to shift away from donations and towards improvements in their own production capacity – from reliance to independence. Europe should welcome this as a shared interest. And it should take the initiative by announcing its intention to use the crisis as a catalyst to strengthen its partnership with Africa through the development of the continent’s agricultural sector. Africa has the potential to become a major wheat producer – which would improve Europe’s food security as well its own. And an effort to share the technology to achieve this would be far less politically controversial than that around vaccine patents.
France has moved first in the area by creating its FARM initiative. This could develop into a pan-European project and then one that involved Europe’s partners across the world.
African countries could also seize this moment to put forward a clear concept of their diverse international partnerships. During the pandemic, they held up Russia’s and China’s vaccine deliveries as examples of how Europe could be a better partner. But, when Russia inevitably uses its food aid to gain a geopolitical advantage, the transactional nature of such assistance will become even more explicit. African states should consider whether they want Europe to be equally transactional.
Meanwhile, European leaders need to realise that it is hard to reconcile charity with interests. As shown by African countries’ votes on the UN resolution, charity buys little influence.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.