Last month I enjoyed a day-trip to the University of Birmingham to attend the second of an ESRC-funded seminar series on UK-Africa relations, which I am involved in organising. More details on the seminar series are available at our website – http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/bisa-africa/uk-africa-policy. You can also follow the twitter feed of the seminar series on @UKAfricaSeminar.
Our second session focused on ‘Development Policy in UK-Africa relations: From New Labour to Coalition and Austerity’. I thought I would share a brief summaryof the presentations and debates that took place and conclude with some of my own thoughts.
The opening presentation saw two distingushed speakers, with significant practitioner experience, provide their thoughts on how UK-Africa relations have developed over the years. We heard from Miles Wickstead who acted as the head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa formed during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. His comments were supported by intejections from Barrie Ireton, a former Director General of the UK’s Departent for International Development (DFID).
Miles Wickstead outlined what he saw as the defining moments in the UK government’s relations with Africa. Key historical points in the relationship were identified as the end of the Cold War and then the election of New Labour and the creation of DFID. He then offered some insights from his work with the Commission for Africa (CfA). The CfA’s report was published in 2005 and it became a key document for the G8 Gleneagles summit later that year. He concluded that of the three key elements of the CfA’s report – debt relief, more aid and trade justice – it is the latter that has seen the least progress.
We then heard from Kirsty McNeill who reflected on her time as a former Downing Street adviser during New Labour’s term of office. She spoke on ‘Idealism or Interests: What really drove Labour’s Africa Policy?’. The central argument was that the focus on Africa was based on idealism and not interests – development is not a big vote winner. There were also some concluding thoughts on current debates within the Labour Party and reference was made to a recent speech by Jim Murphy MP, who is currently Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. This speech maps out an agenda for Labour if they return to govermnent in 2015 and it is pleasing to see that equality and the rights of workers now form a more central part of the analysis.
After lunch Donna Arrondelle (University College London) and Meera Sebaratnam (School of Oriental and African Studies) moved the discussion forward to a focus on the coalition government. Donna spoke about her doctoral research, which is concerned with how the UK’s current international development policy is framed – particularly in terms of the problems that are identified – and how this relates to public understandings of development. Meanwhile, Meera argued that under the coalition the biggest changes in development policy have been an increased emphasis on results and a portrayal of aid as being part of the national interest.
The day concluded with a virtual presentation, via youtube, from Jonathan Glennie (Overseas Development Institute). He argued that aid is one of the least important things that the UK can do to support African development and that it needs to be assessed, not simply in terms of how many schools have been built, etc., but with reference to the wider impacts that result from a long-term reliance on aid.
Overall, another fascinating day of debate and discussions. To conclude I thought I would share some of the thoughts/questions that I scribbled down during my train journey home:
- To what extent has the global context for aid changed since the days when New Labour came into power in 1997? Will there be as much focus on Africa if Labour return to power in 2015? Is the UK an increasingly peripheral player?
- Is a focus on aid and its effectiveness missing the wider issue of the way the global economy is organised? In partiuclar, do we need to look more at how multilateral and bilateral trade agreements continue to create obstacles to African development?
- Why have the Liberal Democrats been so silent on Africa and development policy more broadly during their time in government?
The next meeting takes place at the University of Warwick on 23 September 2014.