Does the UK finally have an Africa policy?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Richard Dowden

Is the UK government at long last beginning to grope towards a new relationship with Africa? The decision to send troops – in a non-combat role – to Somalia and South Sudan, as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s recommitment to spending 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income on aid, are a demonstration of a renewed commitment to Africa. But both those conflicts have been going on for some time, so why now? The timing suggests that Cameron feels the need to justify the UK’s position on the UN Security Council when he addresses the UN General Assembly. He has also decided to visit Nigeria and Kenya next year. 

This comes at a time when the UK has no full-time minister for Africa. James Duddridge has sadly been ill for the past few months but hopes to return to the job shortly. Standing in for him is Grant Shapps, the Minister of State at the Department for International Development (DfiD) and MP for Welwyn Hatfield. His website, however, does not mention Africa at all. It explains that he has saved the 797 bus replacement service in Stevenage and supports a knitting campaign for Syrian refugees. It also points out that he has maintained public access for Bunchley’s Pond and supported “a care4acuppa fundraising tea party campaign for the Isabel Hospice with an Alice in Wonderland promotion day”. Fascinating stuff and vital for him to be re-elected by the people of Hatfield, but nowhere on his website does the word Africa appear.

In all the administrations since Tony Blair’s premiership, DfID has been the lead ministry dealing with Africa. This does not go down well on the continent. Their leaders generally do not like being regarded as a basket case dependent on aid. They want to be treated as equals. The other institution dealing with Africa is UK Trade and Industry, promoting business in Africa.

But aid and business do not amount to a policy. The Foreign Office, the department that is supposed to understand global politics and guide Britain’s role in the international power play, was reduced in Africa. It now has a presence in 35 countries out of Africa’s 54.

Aid is useful for programmes such as immunisation and clean water, but the idea that aid will transform Africa’s economies is false. Only Africans themselves can engineer that transformation. Governments need to raise taxes to spend on health, education and infrastructure, and make the right strategic decisions to attract investment that helps create jobs. But many African governments and their officials tend to suck up their nations’ wealth and keep it at the top or even send it out of the country. A few – Botswana for example – has used aid and loans it to invest and create more wealth. Countries like Kenya and Nigeria, which Cameron will be visiting next year, have created layers of devolved government that have become drains of wealth that suck up the money and pipe it to politicians, bureaucrats and their chosen business partners. The wealth does not trickle down. It trickles up. It’s not the economy that creates this. It’s the politics, stupid.

Aid should be used to support good policies, but countries that have good policies and are also less corrupt and dictatorial. These are rare and they do not need aid for long. A few countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, have good development policies but weak democratic institutions and almost no respect for human rights and the rule of law. This creates a dilemma for donors. If recipient governments start to suppress human rights, indulge in anti-democratic policies or become unacceptably corrupt, aid should be withheld. At least that is the theory. In practice, these countries, aware that the UK must – by law - spend the 0.7% aid money, now have the whip hand.

The UK and other donors are very reluctant to cut aid, not least because they cannot then reach their spending targets. As a result, much of it is given to the World Bank which does not have a great record for delivery or value of money.

So to be effective in Africa, it is essential for the UK to understand its politics. That means employing diplomats to analyse fiendishly complicated political realities and trace the myriad informal but powerful connections that lie beneath to surface. Several UK Africa ministers I have known have admitted glumly that African leaders know and understand UK politics far better than we understand theirs. And African governments are often quick to play the anti-colonial card when Western countries try to apply moral pressure. When President Uhuru Kenyatta was summoned to the International Criminal Court after the 2008 post-election violence, he whipped up a nationalist campaign against the West, which he accused of neo-colonialism and manipulating the prosecutor.

Next door, Yoweri Museveni, now in power since 1986, has flipped the relationship with the UK by sending his troops into regional wars as peacekeepers. No Western countries want to have front line troops in Somalia or South Sudan so he gets a lot of aid and Western support.

Aid is useful for programmes around things such as health and education. But the idea that aid will transform Africa’s economies is false, and I even have some sympathy with the idea that aid slows or prevents essential changes. Only African leaders can engineer the transformation their countries need. When that happens, the need for aid will be over.