Britain’s new approach to sub-Saharan Africa
Posted on 13th July, 2020 in Director's Blog
In January this year, the British Government hosted an Africa Investment Summit at which the Prime Minister, fresh from his election victory, promised to prioritise Britain’s relations with the continent. At the time, I set out some suggestions for how that should be reflected in practical policies (Africa-UK: A new start in 2020?, Director’s Blog of 9 January).
The House of Lord’s International Relations Committee, chaired by Baroness Anelay, has just published its own report on Britain’s Africa strategy (The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa, 10 July 2020) having taken extensive evidence from the Government and independent experts, including the Royal African Society (our written evidence is here, and oral evidence here).
The Lords’ report is a mine of valuable information about the UK-Africa relationship. But it also makes some powerful points. Above all it underlines that Africa matters more to the UK after Brexit than it has in the recent past: we can no longer afford to neglect it. It recognises the great work done by the British Council and the CDC, and that British support, including aid, has been crucial in supporting African growth, including through trade liberalisation and industrialisation within Africa. But it finds the Government’s ‘strategy’ for Africa too vague to be useful and not adequately reflected in action: the talk is not yet matched by the walk (paras 83-5).
The report also focuses on some serious and difficult challenges. Though British trade and investment in Africa have great potential, they have flatlined in the past decade and need to be scaled up significantly if the UK is to restore its profile on the continent (para 430). Britain’s aid programme has also earned it great credit and credibility, but the timing and manner of the DfID merger sent a strong signal that Africa was once more being de-prioritised. This requires remedial action if that impression is to be allayed (paras 305-313). The Government similarly needs to clarify its objectives for security cooperation: is it primarily counter-terrorism, or more broadly trying to reduce conflict to build a more stable continent? The trenchant criticism of the UK’s security support (paras 610-622) should be taken into account if it is to become more effective, in Nigeria for example.
Some of the problems in the relationship could be easily fixed, for example by listening more to African views, improving visa processes and recognising the critical role of remittances (paras 447-60) – all of which would help build confidence that the UK wanted a real and equal partnership.
There are a number of points that are worth picking up for wider discussion.
Firstly, and topically, there is the perception of Africa amongst British people, and of Britain amongst Africans. This has been heavily impacted now by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. As the Lords say: “In order to develop a better understanding of sub-Saharan Africa, the Government should seek to foster knowledge of the UK’s historic relationship with the region among UK citizens” (para 55).
Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, pointed out to the committee that those citizens include a growing number of diaspora Africans themselves. This is a major theme of the report, that the Government needs to pay more attention to the interests and concerns of the diaspora communities – and not just from Africa (paras 53-5). That must include designing a curriculum for schools that takes account of their reality of being British. Otherwise racial stereotypes risk being perpetuated. The Royal African Society, together with our sister organisation the African Studies Association of the UK, will be taking up the question of how Britain should now be teaching the history of the empire in a webinar on 30 July. Details will be available on our website shortly.
Secondly there is the question of visas. As Patrick Wintour has reported in The Guardian, the Lords recognise the damage done to Britain’s reputation and influence in Africa through its restrictive and painful visa process and the legacy of the ‘hostile environment’ policies of Theresa May that led to the Windrush scandal. A start has been made in addressing this, but we are still awaiting a proper response from the Government to the recommendations in last year’s report from the APPG for Africa on Visa Problems for African visitors to the UK that found the current processes “arbitrary, expensive, time-consuming and sometimes even humiliating” (paras 51-2).
Thirdly, it recognises that Africa’s economy has been gravely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the global recession it has sparked, with a risk of an additional 27 to 60 million people falling into extreme poverty, reversing much of the progress of the past decade. Now is the time for Britain to visibly step up and provide Africa with the international and bilateral support it needs, to demonstrate that Britain is a friend when it really matters (paras 19-28 and 286-292).
As I have pointed out elsewhere (The Conversation, 29 May 2020), Brexit creates an imperative for the UK to build its partnership with Africa. If we fail to do so, others will, and the UK’s influence on the continent will fade. The report identifies the importance of responding to China’s hugely increased presence on the continent: but whether through closer cooperation or more contestation has yet to be decided (paras 103-113). Africa is a competitive market, and Africans will choose their own partners on the basis of the real benefits they stand to get from the partnership. It would be a massive missed opportunity if we take them for granted once more and fail to deliver a partnership that works for both of us.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.