Africa-Scotland: transforming relations into action

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Publication Date
16/10/2023
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Africa-Scotland: transforming relations into action
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My international career began when I went to live in Ethiopia as a child, in the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie. Arriving in the capital Addis Ababa, at 8,000ft, this city ringed by green fields and high mountains, the tang of eucalyptus smoke hanging in the air, completely overturned my childish images about Africa. Three years of schooling alongside children of 70 other nationalities gave me an appetite to connect with this extraordinary world.

Camilla Toulmin smiling for the camera
Professor Camilla Toulmin FRSE
Senior Fellow, Africa-Europe Foundation; Professor in Practice, Lancaster University.

I went from a degree in economics to teaching at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, then on to two years in a mud hut in central Mali. I learned a lot about farming millet, spinning cotton and milking cows. On the North Bank of the River Niger, the village was visited by Mungo Park on his first voyage of discovery across West Africa.

Two years’ fieldwork gave me the material for my PhD and book – Cattle, Women and Wells: Managing household survival in the Sahel. Over the past four decades, I have kept track of this community and went back recently to conduct a survey of changes to people, landscape, rainfall and prospects, published as Land, Investment and Migration: Thirty-five years of village life in Mali. In 2020, life looked promising despite the increased scarcity of land and volatility of rainfall. Since then, however, the villagers have had a very rough couple of years, having been besieged by jihadist forces, with some of them killed and their cattle holdings stolen. When people talk about ‘resilient communities’, such resilience often comes at a painful cost.

When people talk about ‘resilient communities’, such resilience often comes at a painful cost.

Being Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) for 12 years gave me a great overview of sustainable development at global and local levels and how you need to push actions in favour of sustainability at all levels. Global agreements are important but a more bottom-up approach is vital to nail down what these global goals mean in practice. IIED has played a major part in design and delivery of the United Nations Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals (MDGs & SDGs), with colleagues contributing over decades to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while also innovating in community-based adaptation.

Both Africa and Europe want to move beyond a relationship defined by aid and towards greater trade and investment flows.

Today, as Senior Fellow for Energy and Agri-food Systems at the Africa-Europe Foundation, I am working on what is needed for just energy transitions in Africa, especially accelerating access to clean energy for the 600 million people still without power. As in Scotland, these energy transitions need a combination of credible policy, serious investment from public and private sectors and clever technology mixed with strong political leadership. Both Africa an Europe want to move beyond a relationship defined by aid and towards greater trade and investment flows, which could enable much faster economic growth and transformation. Besides energy, both continents face major challenges to adapt to climate change, regenerate soils and build agricultural systems which nourish biodiversity rather than trashing nature’s extraordinary wealth.

When Glasgow hosted COP26, it was thrilling to see familiar and new faces here, on the Clyde and the station platform at Haymarket each morning. The world came to Scotland for a brief moment and some good things were achieved, even if President Alok Sharma shed a tear for the gap between the necessary ambition and what was finally agreed.

As a member of the RSE’s Africa Working Group, I am keen to map the diverse activities which link our small country with centres of knowledge and research across the African continent. Over the summer, an inventory is being prepared to give us a sense of work under way, collaborations pursued and partnerships developed by Scottish institutions with African colleagues. This should give us a strong base on which to make choices for future focus by the RSE.


Professor Camilla Toulmin FRSE, Senior Fellow, Africa-Europe Foundation; Professor in Practice, Lancaster University.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE Summer 2023.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.