Last month the ESRC series on UK-Africa relations held its fourth meeting at Chatham House in London. In line with my reports on previous meetings, this blog entry provides a brief summary of the discussions and some of the thoughts that I had on what was said (and in some cases not said!) during the day.
In contrast to previous seminars in the series, and with the UK general election imminent, this event was more exclusively focused on UK policy and in particular the ‘prosperity agenda’ advanced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. An early speech in 2010 by then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, set out this focus arguing that there should be a “virtuous circle between foreign policy and [UK] prosperity”.
Our day at Chatham House began with a presentation by James Duddridge, the UK government’s Minister for Africa. He outlined how the prosperity agenda emphasises the shared interests present in UK-Africa relations. He argued for the need to move the focus of UK policy beyond aid and to see Africa as an increasingly important location of trade and investment opportunities. In line with the idea of a ‘golden thread’ of development, outlined in an opinion piece by David Cameron in 2012, he also noted the symbiotic relationship between peace, good governance and prosperity in Africa. Marco Jowell, a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office analyst, confirmed the essence of this ‘new’ approach by arguing that under the Coalition there has been more of an emphasis on UK interests and UK business in the government’s Africa policy.
The three panels that followed this keynote address then considered the following issues:
- The UK’s ‘propserity agenda’ within the context of rising economic growth in Africa.
- The potential challenges to the prosperity agenda.
- The prospects for continuity or change in UK policy after the general election on 7 May.
Reflecting on the discussions I want to highlight three key issues. First, is the question of whose prosperity is advanced through the UK government’s prosperity agenda for Africa? Much of the debate during the day revealed just how central economic growth remains to orthodox understandings of development. For centuries, Africa has been a destination for UK trade and investment but how do we ensure that it benefits the majority of African populations? Inequality across Africa remains a huge issue and the assumption that the prosperity approach will induce ‘trickle-down’ has been shown in the past to be mistaken to say the least. The impact of economic growth will remain limited and exclusive unless African states are allowed the policy space to structurally transform their economies via effective industrial policies.
Second, we need to beware of the dangers of seeing Africa as a coherent entity. As one of the participants (Mthuli Ncube) noted, most of the recent growth in Africa has taken place in the tropics and not the North or South of the continent. So is it even helpful to talk of the UK having such a thing as an ‘Africa policy’? Moreover, the rhetoric around the economic boom in Africa needs careful consideration; not least because recent falls in the price of oil pose an immediate challenge to the growth experienced in many countries.
Third, how important is the UK compared to other external actors in Africa? Many of the speakers noted the rise of Chinese involvement in Africa, and in particular their role in many of the numerous infrastructure projects across the continent. Robin Gwynn, a former British diplomat specialising in Africa, suggested that if the UK is to retain influence then both the tone and the substance of its policy is important. As many African governments start to look East for inspiration, they are increasingly arguing that the state needs to play a stronger role in national development. In contrast, the UK’s prosperity agenda appears to retain the misguided neoliberal faith in the market as the route to development. As China’s influence grows in Africa it is therefore likely that retaining a focus on prosperity will further diminish the UK’s influence in the future.
The next meeting which will discuss ‘Trade in UK-Africa relations’ is being held at my own institution, Oxford Brookes University, on Wednesday 1 July 2015. For further information on the series as a whole go to the website and follow the twitter feed: @UKAfricaSeminar.