UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 4

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:

  1. The UK’s ‘propserity agenda’ within the context of rising economic growth in Africa.
  2. The potential challenges to the prosperity agenda.
  3. 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.

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 3

Back in late October I made the short trip to the University of Warwick to attend the third of seven seminars in an ESRC series I am co-organising on UK-Africa relations. Elsewhere on this blog you can read my reports on the opening seminar on ‘Contemporary UK-Africa Relations in Historical Perspective‘ and the second meeting on ‘Development Policy‘. If you are interested in following the rest of the series there is also a twitter feed: @UKAfricaSeminar.

One of the joys of being involved in these seminar series is that you get to broaden your horizons beyond your own (often fairly narrow) research interests. This was certainly the case for me as the theme of this third seminar was ‘Security, stability and conflict management in UK-Africa relations’. What follows is a brief summary of the discussions and a few personal reflections.

The opening session of the day was led by a representative from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Knox Chitiyo (Chatham House). Together these two presentations highlighted how in reality all aspects of the UK’s policy to Africa can be considered to be about ‘security’ when we think about security in the broader sense. Moreover, as with all the other aspects of UK-Africa relations considered in the seminar series, security matters take place within a broader international context, where the UK is by no means the only actor. For example, Knox Chitiyo suggested that much of the UK’s military engagement with Africa is now done multilaterally via the EU, UN, etc. He also introduced the important question of ‘African agency’ into the discussion, which was a theme of a previous ESRC seminar series I attended back in 2011. Although there are some moves towards Africa becoming a partner in UK policy formulation, Knox made a convincing case for suggesting that the UK still has some way to go in moving to a position where it conducts security policy with, rather than to, Africa.

The two panels in the afternoon were organised geographically, one being focused on West Africa and the other on East Africa. All four presentations highlighted some of the limitations of the UK’s contribution to international engagement on various different issues. Zoe Marks (University of Edinburgh) highlighted the dilemmas inherent to the UK’s response to issues of gender and security. Although the UK, and William Hague in particular, has recently led the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative‘ there are problems with the way sexual violence is portrayed as exceptional in times of conflict. Jonathan Fisher (University of Birmingham) considered the UK’s response to the crisis in South Sudan. He highlighted how the coalition has moved away from a position, based on an assumption of a responsibility to try and solve such conflicts, to one where stabilisation and support for regional actors is key. The afternoon concluded with a powerful critique of UK policy to Kenya from David Anderson (University of Warwick).

One of the broad themes that came out of the day’s discussions was how we understand the relationship between ‘security’ and ‘development’. Is (or in fact should) all UK policy to Africa be framed as ‘security’ or rather should ‘development’ be more prominent? As Eka Ikpe demonstrated in her discussion of the Boko Haram crisis, the international response has largely been defined in terms of ‘counter-terrorism’, when the root causes of the conflict lie in the fact that Northern Nigeria is economically disadvantaged. This relates to more practical concerns for UK policy-making. The need for more ‘joined-up’ thinking remains pertinent and, in the case of Africa in particular, sometimes the Department for International Development (DFID) and the FCO adopt very different strategies in the same partner countries.

The seminar series continues in the new year with events at Chatham House, Oxford Brookes University, the Institute for Public Policy Research and then the seventh and final seminar is due to be held at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi.

After 2015: Critically Engaging with Global Development

Last week I had the privilege of spending two days at a thoroughly inspiring and engaging conference entitled ‘After 2015: Development and its Alternatives‘ held at the British Academy in London. As I am sure my academic colleagues would agree, the words ‘inspiring’ and ‘engaging’ are not always associated with some of the conferences we attend. Not least it has provoked me to write another blog post after a summer of inactivity!

The remit of the conference was to critically reflect on the state of international development policy since the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, which famously prompted the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There are eight headline MDGs and these are underpinned by eighteen statistical targets. With the MDGs due to expire in 2015 the second main focus of the discussions was to consider what development alternatives we might envisage in the future.

During the discussions on the first day, the MDGs were described by some as a ‘trojan horse’ that have allowed the broader challenges of development to gain more significance in the minds of policymakers. In particular, Jan Vandemoortele, who during his time working for the United Nations played a role in designing the MDGs, suggested that their simplicity meant they passed his “Grandma test”! In other words, his Grandma (i.e. the wider public) would be able to understand them. I am all in favour of resisting the attempt by many academics (and policymakers) to obfuscate. In fact part of the reason for creating this blog was precisely to engage with the wider public in a format that has broader appeal.

Nevertheless, simplifying the challenge of global development to eight goals with a range of associated numerical targets does result in a specific framing of how we understand and talk about development. For example, David Hulme in his presentation at the conference, highlighted how the MDGs have set a path of results-based performance management that is now largely uncontested. It has certainly struck me, over recent years, how many of the students taking my classes on ‘International Development’ were aware of the MDGs, but how few have felt it necessary to question their underlying logic. After all, who can argue against the goal of ‘eradicating extreme poverty and hunger’?

When we are considering the development chances of over 7 billion people, maybe the reality is that things aren’t necessarily this simple. As a number of participants at the conference convincingly argued, a focus on goals and targets distracts our attention away from interrogating the way the global political economy is organised. How is it run and in whose interests? It is only then that we start to discover many of the obstacles to human development.

If we are going to reflect on the contemporary prospects for global development then we would be better served by starting our analysis by considering the continued push to further embed the market and the rights of capital into all corners of the globe. For example, the rise of bilateral trade and investment agreements negotiated in the first instance between major trading powers and a number of developing countries/regions and now between the EU and the United States (the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) has tipped the balance even further in favour of transnational capital. It is only when we have put the politics of the global economy back into the discussion that we can have an informed discussion about whether these developments are more, or less likely, to achieve the kinds of development outcomes envisaged in the MDGs.

The second day of the conference began with a thought-provoking presentation by Carl Death and Clive Gabay. Rather than dismiss out of hand the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), proposed as the way forward after the expiry of the MDGs in 2015, their discussion considered the possibilities they might offer for transformation. They made a convincing case as to the significant differences between what is being proposed in the SDGs when compared to the MDGs. In particular:

  1. the global focus of the SDGs compared to the MDGs which were essentially aimed at the planet’s ‘bottom billion’;
  2. the inclusion of new issues such as labour rights and inequality that also pose direct challenges for Western states.

From this they concluded there was radical potential – with an emphasis on the word ‘potential’ – in the SDGs.

There is much to admire in their attempt to subvert the prospect of the SDGs turning into more of the same. The question I have is the extent to which the target-driven focus of the SDGs automatically prevents any radical outcomes. This is a caveat they acknowledged and it returns us back to the issue of targets and their impacts. The current plan for the SDGs is to increase the number of goals from eight to seventeen. The consequence of which is a dramatic rise in the overall number of targets. The experience of those of us working in an increasingly target-dominated public sector in the UK know only too well the subversive practices that result from a ‘measurement agenda’ and the setting of targets. James Scott had described this as the ‘audit society’ on the first day of the conference.

The question is whether global development targets are far enough removed from those on the ground to avoid the sorts of subversive practice that ensues when targets are used to audit human behaviour. Moreover, targets imply a conceptualisation of development in strictly quantitative terms and as many of the participants at the conference demonstrated, this limits our imaginations in a number of ways.

The final panel of the conference sought to take us beyond such limits. It included a range of first-hand accounts of lived alternatives to the mainstream development paradigm. Together they also demonstrated the potential consequences of a world that is further opened up to the interests of capital in the name of development.

Particularly inspirational for me was Carlos Zorrilla from Ecuador, who gave us a powerful account of his involvement in a long-running resistance movement against the prospect of open copper mines in the region of Intag. He highlighted how both World Bank policy and domestic state interests have conspired to encourage a vision of development that is both environmentally damaging and opposed by local people. He outlined the threats he has faced as a result, not least from the Ecuadorian state itself, but also the achievements that such collective resistance can realise. Carlos also alerted the audience to the 2008 film ‘Under Rich Earth‘ which documents some of these achievements.

Overall, I must thank the organisers of the conference for creating such an open forum for discussion over the two days. I returned home motivated and re-energised.

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 2

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 – 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.