For this discussion, it is necessary to set the premise using the United Nations. In UN resolutions, codes and standards, the governments have agreed that humanitarian assistance should be allocated according to the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. This normative framework, however, must not lead to an incorrect assumption that humanitarian aid is divorced from political power.
But instead, the decision as to where, how and why to provide humanitarian assistance is part of more extensive foreign policy considerations which are guided by both norms and interests, such as geopolitical concerns or the aim of a donor to demonstrate benevolent behavior.
The Good humanitarian donor-ship initiative was set up in 2003 as a forum for best practices and to discuss and agree on principles of giving humanitarian aid. Given the current geopolitical environment, these questions are still pursued with vigour in different countries around the world.
Based on this premise therefore, in discussing the potential for cooperation between Russia and African countries in the humanitarian sphere and what needs to be done to improve the effectiveness of contacts between people in Africa and Russia, it is essential to note that humanitarian principles are embedded in the Russian culture as people of humanity. The values and culture of Russia influence the country’s concept of humanitarian assistance. Russia believes in the oneness of all human beings and a gift without expectation, the willingness of the strong to help the weak.
At this point, I would like to remind and emphasize that we are witnessing an emerging new world order distinctively different from the Soviet days, and the catchphrase is now such new initiatives, partnership and participation. Undoubtedly the new realities are pushing African countries to diversify their post-colonial relations with external players. Today, Africa is now the centre of attraction as significant powers are moving into Africa, and Russia’s potential for cooperation with African countries in the humanitarian sphere is enormous.
The decolonization of African countries in the 1950s and early 1960s created an opportunity for the Soviet Union after the second world War. As the process continued, the Kremlin planned its policy agenda for the newly liberated African countries.
That policy agenda could be categorized into four parts:
1. To gain a lasting presence in the African continent.
2. To have a voice in African affairs.
3. To undermine Western influence in the African continent by equating capitalism with imperialism.
4. To keep communist China out of the African continent.
These were the four pillars of the Soviet Union’s African policy from 1945 to 1991, when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed.
As we know, the interest of a nation determines the form of relation it maintains with other states. This gives credence to the notion that there is neither a permanent friend nor a permanent enemy in international diplomacy. It is the interest of the country that is permanent.
For many African countries, the willingness to support Russia goes back to the cold war when the Soviet Union provided military and economic assistance to the liberation movements across the continent.
This reservoir of goodwill created by the Soviet Union today forms part of the foundation for modern Russia’s relationship with African countries.
Since the Soviet’s collapse and combined with the global changes taking place around the world have obviously brought new challenges, threats and opportunities. Despite that the Russian Federation has successfully been implementing cultural and humanitarian cooperation programmes with various African countries, including contacts in education, science, culture, media, sports and music.
This type of cooperation with African countries, especially in education, science and technology, is essential in resolving African problems, particularly overcoming social inequalities and also involvement of women and youth in sustainable economic development. African graduates educated in Russia will contribute to their respective individual countries to enter a new scientific and technological development stage.
This factor of strength pertaining to the training of specialists and professionals has still remained from Soviet days. It beholds on us to strengthen this component within the policy framework, to make cooperation truly beneficial for Africa. Many African students are presently in Russia, including about four thousand whose education is funded by the Russian Government. Of course, there are many studying on private contracts in the regions of the Russian Federation.
For context, we understand that Russia and Africa have taken a unique plan to develop partnerships, in tandem, between pan-African universities and Russian universities. A closer look at this kind of cooperation shows a huge potential for exploring new ways to boost bilateral relationships. The educational programmes should not be limited to traditional or regular students, but must include wide-range of specialised short-term courses, as factual backup to acquiring new (upgrading) knowledge, for a multitude of specific target groups instrumental in bolstering bilateral cooperation.
We have to acknowledge the fact that there have been tremendous efforts in Africa to promote higher education, but these efforts are still behind the global trends. With the population of Africa growing to over 1.3 billion, it is surprising the continent produces fewer research publications than Canada, a country with a population of 37.8 million. The United States has an estimated 380 million. Therefore, Russia-African cooperation in education will further provide multi-dimensional chances to undertake knowledge-based research and educational fellowships in Russia and Africa.
The next significant point is that – Russia also has indicated an interest in developing and organizing the practical training of African diplomats at the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This could serve as an interesting place to learn and exchange the best diverse practices and valuable principles of contemporary diplomacy, particularly in the emerging multipolar world.
According to my research – Russia currently ranks 6th in the number of international students, with an estimated 35,000 coming from Africa. We know that there are foreign students from Asia and Latin America. As part of the expansion of humanitarian cooperation, the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia has further announced doubling the number of budget places in Russian universities for African students.
Other programmes in the pipeline include the opening of Russian educational centres in Africa and the training of national teachers to staff African secondary schools. I would like to note here that Russkiy Mir has 10 offices in Africa. But there is still room for expansion. Compared to its counterpart, China’s Confucius Institute operates in 25 African countries, half the continent.
Speaking at an international parliamentary conference titled Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World on 20 March 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow has written off the debts of African states worth more than 20 billion dollars. He further said that the trade turnover between Russia and African countries is growing yearly, reaching almost 18 billion dollars in 2022.
Writing off $20 billion debts of the African countries is one the most extraordinary humanitarian art by Russian towards African countries, and African countries, through press releases and official statements, publicly acknowledged this wonderful gesture with tremendous appreciation and feelings of admiration and gratitude.
The humanitarian crisis in the African continent remains one of the world’s most severe, with record levels of displacement and suffering, and it is hopeful that Russia, in its long-standing humanitarian commitment, will design more programmes to assist categories of people such as:
– Displaced people and those affected by conflict and disaster.
– Programme to help reduce violence against girls, children, and women in Africa.
– Help those who suffered rebuild their livelihood and support community resilience.
– Help separated children, trauma survivors, and children with acute malnutrition.
At this point of our analysis, it is very useful quoting Professor Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director at the Valdai Discussion Club and Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal. He is the powerful Chair of the State Commission on Defense and Foreign Policy.
In his words, notwithstanding all things, Africa has its own strengths and weaknesses based on history, but the balance is positive in this new multipolar world. Most potential success also depends largely on African countries themselves and their ability to build up relations with outside powers on rational and calculated basis in the changing global situation.
Professor Maurice Okoli is a fellow at the Institute for African Studies and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also a fellow at the North-Eastern Federal University in Russia.