THIS year Africa celebrated the 47th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity on May 25 1963, which was renamed the African Union in July 2002.

The celebrations come amid new interest from First World and other world-leading countries on the continent that has been dubbed the darkest in the eyes of the world.

Australia, regarded as a late-comer to the party after long-declared development and other aid by the US, UK , the European Union and other developed powers, seems convinced that there is only one path to follow.

The country's recent undertaking to engage the African continent should not, however, suggest that it has not been engaging Africa.

It has, for instance, a telling presence in South Africa as well as in other countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and also has mineral interests in Sierra Leone.

From as early as 2007, when the country ushered in a new Labour Party-led government, there has been advocacy for more involvement and for increased aid to be pumped into Africa.

Traditionally, their diplomatic interests and development assistance had been focused primarily on Asia and the Pacific.

In recent weeks the country has come under immense criticism from opponents who branded the government's direction and intentions of channelling aid "as a mere ploy" and a way of currying favour to gain Australia a seat on the UN Security Council.

"Our increased assistance is about contributing more effectively to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and being a good international citizen in a world that is becoming ever smaller and more complex," said Bob McMullan, a member of parliament and parliamentary secretary for international development assistance, recently.

"Africa is a long way from Canberra. But it is not nearly so far away when you live in Perth.

"You wake up to the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific, and just across that ocean is a continent of more than 50 countries and about one billion people, and what happens to those countries and the billion people affects us and some cannot see this yet," he said.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, in his address to the Africa Day celebrations in Melbourne in May, said his country was committed to broadening and deepening its engagement with Africa,.

He said it wanted to work with the continent in ways that its expertise in areas such as agriculture and food security, extractive industry management, and peace and security can make a unique contribution.

The Australians have listed as priorities enhanced and diplomatic engagement, supporting Africa's efforts to promote economic growth through investment and trade to assist the continent in its effort to make progress in addressing peace and security challenges.

He said the high commissioner's office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will serve as ambassador to the AU as well as diplomatic representative to Ethiopia. There will be a defence liaison officer to assist with matters pertaining to peace and security.

Following last year's declaration of intent by Smith in his address to the AU assembly, a further step was taken in the establishment of an inquiry into Australia's relationship with Africa.

Senator Michael Forshaw, who is leading the inquiry, says Africa faces many challenges in areas such as governance, security, health, migration, food production, and the impact of climate change.

"While Australia has long-standing relations with Commonwealth countries in Africa, we have also participated in peacekeeping missions," he said.

"The federal government is actively pursuing a policy of increased engagement with Africa, and Australian companies recognise the future trade and investment opportunities."

According to Forshaw, the joint standing committee has received 50 submissions ranging across a multitude of issues that define Australia's relations with Africa.

Some of the submissions came from African embassies, missions and independent bodies and explore how the relationship can grow into the future.

Australia has significant and growing interests in Africa's resources sector, where companies from the country have an estimated R130billion in current and prospective investments with projects in 40 countries.

The country also enjoys growing people-to-people links with Africa, including in education.

The University of Sydney, for example, runs several courses whereby professionals, especially from the mining sectors from all over Africa, attend leadership programmes in different fields such as taxation, project management, and policies on how they will work with their respective resources back home.

And because they are from different countries, they are able to pull together their experiences and come out with tailor-made results.

Another institution, the Edith Cowan University in Perth, has taken interest in the continent and has a presence in the eastern African countries of Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Congo.

They have established the Australia-Tanzania Young Ambassadors Programme and the Rafiki Surgical Mission, where surgical missions are conducted by Australian surgeons under the initiative known as the Volunteer Surgical Missions Australia-Tanzania.

Since 2004, about 650 children have been operated on freely for congenital anomalies such as cleft lip, cleft palate, club feet and burns contractures.

At all the hospitals in which the Australian surgeons worked in Tanzania, they cooperated with Tanzanian medical professionals in order to build their capacity to handle such cases in future.