Africa and the UK’s Integrated Review
Posted on 25th March, 2021 in Director's Blog
Last week the British Government published Global Britain in a competitive age, its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The aim is to demonstrate that, with Brexit achieved, Britain intends to play a constructive and influential role on the world stage.
Africa features. The government pledges to “maintain” its commitment to the continent, partnering with the African Union and its member states on “climate and biodiversity, global health security, free trade, crisis management, conflict prevention and mediation, the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and promoting good governance and human rights”. It will focus particularly on its relationship with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, and on tackling insecurity in the Horn of Africa and Mali (see pages 46 and 63).
No 10 has even followed up these words with action, inviting President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa to attend the G7 Summit in the UK this June, as we have been arguing for some time.
Which is all excellent. The broad commitments in the review to upholding democratic values, to an open multilateral order, tackling climate change and fighting insecurity are also highly laudable. The question being asked is whether these promises will be matched with resources, time and effort. To assess that, the broader shifts in the review and the actions already taken by the government need to be taken into account.
Some have questioned whether the review is not in effect a “Polo mint policy” – fully rounded, but with a hole in the middle where the European Union used to be – and one that prioritises hard power over soft. References to the EU are scarce and Britain’s main European vocation is to its security, as a member of NATO and a partner in standing up to Russia. To read the text, it appears that everything is a priority. But judging from the column inches, it is science and technology, security and defence in a competitive multipolar world, and the Indo-Pacific tilt that are the government’s real focus. On the first at least, the ghost of the prime minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings still stalks the corridors of No 10.
There are plenty of pledges to sustain Britain’s soft power, but fewer resources with which to do it. From Africa’s point of view the actions, and the money, speak louder than words. The Prime Minister pledges in his Foreword to return to the target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid “when the fiscal situation allows”; but for now drastic cuts in Britain’s bilateral and humanitarian aid budgets will impact heavily on bilateral relationships, especially at a time when Africa is facing the economic fallout of the Covid pandemic. The pledge to focus the new development strategy, to be drawn up by 2022, on the priorities in the Review and on “areas which are important to a globally-focussed UK” as well as where the UK can make the greatest difference, appears to suggest less focus on poverty-reduction or partnership to agree development priorities, and more on a selective regional distribution. The review also proposes to replace grants with “British expertise” to countries graduating from traditional aid, and to link aid more closely with diplomacy and trade (p. 46).
This more selective approach could cost the UK dear at the UN and WTO, where it is increasingly in need of African friends if it is to succeed in its global ambition of setting the agenda, brokering agreements and securing top jobs.
Migration and terrorism have also visibly sunk down the priority list. Both are there, but as something to be fended off, not tackled at source. Migration is scarcely mention until the very end (p. 90). There will be particular disappointment at the absence of any commitment to reform the visa regime to make it easier to visit Britain, unless of course you are one of the few highly-skilled “talents” who will qualify under the new points-based immigration system. As we have demonstrated, the cost in time, money and humiliation of the current visa system will simply put many Africans off visiting or studying in the UK at all, diminishing the UK’s links with Africa and its soft power on the continent.
Power comes from three things: the strength of a country’s military, the size of its economy, and the number of its friends. Britain has just broken with 27 of its closest friends. It cannot afford to alienate more. This requires a greater effort to engage with African countries’ own priorities than is envisaged in the review. In Britain, half the population may see Brexit as a success; in the world, it is perceived as diminishing the country, leading to a loss of wealth, loss of friends and loss of influence – “fading away” as one friend in Africa put it. It takes more than boosterish cake-ism to restore that reputation. It requires time, effort, money and commitment.
Africa’s few firm friends in the ruling Conservative Party struggle, it seems, to get their views heard in No 10. It is all the more important therefore that the continent’s advocates in this country, including British citizens and MPs with roots in, and relations on, the continent, speak up more loudly to ensure Africa’s voice is heard. The interests of up to two million people in the UK and over 1.2 billion people in Africa should not be overlooked when we are so closely linked by family and by history.
There should be not just a tilt towards Africa, but a fully-fledged political partnership with the continent. Now that would make a difference.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society