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Community Aid Abroad and World Vision act as trading brokers for African nations in the absence of adequate agency representation from overseas governments.

KARON SNOWDON: In something of a philosophical somersault, some Australian aid agencies have come to the view that trade might in fact provide some of the impetus to help get African nations back on their economic feet. In an unusual turnaround, Community Aid Abroad and World Vision have been acting as brokers in some cases, to introduce business people to government representatives here and from Africa.

Executive Director of Community Aid Abroad, Jeremy Hobbs, says Africa, a continent of 53 countries and lots of different circumstances, should no longer be stereotyped as a collective basket case. Despite the more obvious cases of war and upheaval, which seem to be the lot of some, more positive attitudes from business and the Australian Government would go a long way to help develop and stabilise those states which are moving to democratise.

JEREMY HOBBS: Certainly some of the poorest countries in the world are on the African continent. But there are also some real bright spots. And I suppose it's disheartening for those of us who work in the field with African people who are trying to change their situation, that there is seeming disinterest in Africa as a place for the focus of both long-term development assistance and trade and investment, which in a sense is what many of those countries are crying out for, to overcome their poverty.

KARON SNOWDON: Well, isn't Australia right, perhaps, to focus on its own region, the Asia Pacific region?

JEREMY HOBBS: Well, I think you've got to balance these things, and a lot of Australia's aid program, we would argue, is going to countries which are far better off than Africa. And often the aid is in the form of, I suppose, subsidies to Australian business to find opportunities to trade with those countries. And our argument has always been that that isn't necessarily the best form of aid. It's not a bad form of trade, I suppose. But with Africa, there are large populations, there are lots of resources, and I think the reason people have been frightened from investing in Africa is probably political instability, and a reputation. I mean, you even see people writing "the Dark Continent", which...

KARON SNOWDON: Still.

JEREMY HOBBS: Still. There's countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, where clearly there are real opportunities. And if we take Ethiopia, where I suppose Community Aid Abroad has most experience, there's no consul in Australia. One has to apply to Tokyo to get a visa. There's no embassy in Addis, yet it's the second largest country in the continent. It's now the only really politically stable government in the region and is playing a really important role in trying to stabilise and negotiate Somalia, Sudan. And there's no recognition of the really good things that the government of Ethiopia are doing.

On top of that there are some real investment opportunities and trade opportunities, particularly areas such as mining, tourism, and dry land farming. And we've found ourselves in the rather surprising situation of actually introducing Ministers from the Ethiopian Government to mining interests here in Australia, because there is no other easy way of accessing business interests in Australia, other than through contacts such as ourselves.

KARON SNOWDON: And you're also joint sponsoring this conference about closer ties with Africa, with World Vision. Now this is an unusual position for CAA to be in, isn't it, because you're basically talking trade and investment?

JEREMY HOBBS: Sure. And we've been a very vocal critic of using the aid program to simply promote Australia's trade interests. We've always argued that the humanitarian focus is the most important. But if you look at Africa, I suppose the screaming need is for infrastructure. A lot of the Asian countries where our aid and trade interests go, are where there's well established infrastructure, there's large populations, and in a sense we've got a policy of picking winners in Asia.

KARON SNOWDON: So do you say that the Australian Government should be taking a lead here, and that perhaps investment will follow as a result? And what would you like to see specifically done?

JEREMY HOBBS: Well, I think obviously we are saying that, and why not? I think if we talk about Ethiopia, we would like to see a trade mission. Better still, we'd like to see a full embassy. We would also like to see people thinking seriously about the opportunities in countries like Mozambique.

So, I think we just need to see the sort of encouragement that Bob McMullan has given Australian companies in looking at places like India, where he's led large trade delegations and they've really put a lot of time and energy into exploring those possibilities. They seem to have paid off. I think the same sorts of possibilities are available in Africa.

KARON SNOWDON: And Jeremy Hobbs is Executive Director of Community Aid Abroad, which is organising a seminar in conjunction with World Vision next week, in Melbourne. And that will involve senior African diplomats, Trade Minister Bob McMullan, and business executives from Australia. And the idea is of getting more attention onto Africa.