UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series

Last week I attended the first in a series of seven one-day seminars looking into ‘UK-Africa Policy after Labour’, which is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. As one of the co-organisers of the series I am lucky enough to be able to attend all the discussions, which will take place at different venues across the UK and then (fingers crossed) conclude with a seminar at the British Institute of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. More details on the seminar series will be available at our website – You can also follow the twitter feed of the seminar series on @UKAfricaSeminar.

Our first session at the University of Sheffield was on the theme of ‘Contemporary UK-Africa Relations in Historical Perspective’. I thought I would post a summary of the discussions including a few of my initial thoughts based on my scribblings during the day.

We were honoured to have Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, to give an opening address. He provided a fascinating overview of the broad sweep of our historical relations with Africa and highlighted that for centuries the British approach has swung between greed and making money and (trying!) to ‘do good’. This struck me as something that remains highly relevant when we consider the nature of contemporary relations.

These opening remarks were then followed by the personal reflections of Prof Christopher Clapham (University of Cambridge) and Martin Plaut (former Africa editor for the BBC World Service). Prof Clapham highlighted how significant colonialism has been to the relationship, but how in more recent years the focus on Anglophone Africa in official UK policy has largely disappeared. Meanwhile, Martin Plaut argued that historically, with a few notable exceptions, Africa has not actually been that important to Britain.

After lunch we were treated to three different, but related presentations on ‘Parties, leaders and UK Africa Policy: from Labour to Coalition’. Rhiannon Vickers (University of Sheffield) gave us plenty of food for thought in her discussion of New Labour’s overall foreign policy and the place of Africa within it.  She convincingly argued that two strands of thought that have a long history within the Labour Party continue to dominate – the desire to focus on the need for justice abroad and the view of Africa as a market for British exports. Julia Gallagher (Royal Holloway) focused in particular on Tony Blair’s emphasis on Africa during his time as PM. She argued that both Blair and Brown’s interest in Africa stemmed from an idealistic (even religious) desire to ‘do good’. As such, for Gallagher, Africa is framed as an apolitical cause or ‘sacred space’ by UK politicians more broadly. Both Vickers and Gallagher suggested that to a large extent we see a lot of continuities in the way Africa is framed by the current government. Finally, Andrew Mycock (University of Huddersfield) demonstrated how the legacies of colonialism have still not been addressed, or acknowledged in Britain, and that this has shaped how both New Labour and the current government view Africa.

Overall, I jotted down four main themes that came out of the discussions:

  1. Which actors should we be focusing on in conducting research on UK-Africa relations? A number of speakers highlighted the creation of the Department for International Development (DFID) by New Labour and the subsequent decline in the influence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Does this matter and how joined-up is the government on Africa? Or should we be looking at the role played by NGOs, who are extremely active across the continent?
  2. One of the questions that emerged out of many of the presentations was whether the coalition government have captured New Labour’s attempts to make Africa a unique centrepiece of their administration. This is exemplified by the coalition’s commitment to ring-fence DFID’s budget. Was this an attempt to ‘de-toxify’ the Conservative Party’s image to voters? I still remember vividly Tony Blair suggesting in his party conference speech in 2001 that ‘the state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world’. Would a future Labour administration be able to use Africa, as they appeared to last time, to try and highlight the differences between them and the Conservatives?
  3. Linked to the previous point, is the question of whether the UK’s Africa policy is even about Africa as such, or whether it is just bound-up in domestic political battles?
  4. Finally, UK-Africa relations take place within a global context. To what extent does this structure impinge on or influence them? For example, what impact does the growth of Chinese involvement across the continent have for the direction and/or significance of the UK’s current approach?

I am sure these and many more questions will be discussed in forthcoming seminars and I can’t wait for the next one. This will be held at the University of Birmingham on May 13 when we will be looking at recent changes in UK-Africa development policy. Maybe a chance for further discussion on the UK’s decision to end bilateral aid to South Africa from 2015 amongst other things?