In January I was asked to write an article for Oxford Analytica reflecting on the UK-Africa Investment Summit held on 20 January 2020. I am now able to share this here.
Global Britain? UK-Africa Relations Damaged by Visa System
Last week I travelled down to Westminster to attend the launch of a new report entitled ‘Visa Problems for African Visitors to the UK’. It is the product of seven months of evidence collection and has been jointly produced by three All-Party Parliamentary Groups (the APPG for Africa, the APPG for Diaspora, Development & Migration and the APPG for Malawi).
The report provides a damning critique of the experience of Africans seeking short-term visit visas to the UK. The headline data is that for a two-year period from September 2016, the refusal rate for African visitors to the UK was 27%, compared with an average across the board of 12% (page 8 of the report). Of course, this does not include data on how many people have been put off even applying in the first place, given a system which the report concludes “does not afford quality decision-making…and is doing tremendous damage to the image and interests of Global Britain” (page 43).
The evidence base for the report also includes a series of personal testimonies from a range of individuals and organisations. During the meeting last week, some audience members in their questions to the Minister for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, recounted their own traumatic experiences with the UK visa system. An online appendix to the report, available here, catalogues these and remains open for further submissions.
The report convincingly argues that the disparities experienced by African applicants are caused by underlying structural barriers. Decisions are perceived to lack fairness, with the evidence collected for the report demonstrating that in some cases applicants are being asked to go beyond the procedural guidelines. Applications are also costly and time-consuming. The UK currently has thirty-two Visa Application Centres (VACs) across the entire continent, which means that the residents of twenty-four African countries have to travel to a neighbouring country to submit their application (page 18). One example, cited in the report, is Mauritania, whose citizens have to apply for a visa to visit Morocco and travel over 4000 km, just to submit a UK visa application (page 20). There is also a lack of accountability in the system with no right of appeal to challenge refusals. Apart from pursuing a judicial review, the only option is to submit a brand new application.
Of course, the findings of this report exist within a wider context that has seen the UK Government employ its ‘hostile environment’ policy in an attempt to appear tough on immigration. More recently, the revelations around the Windrush scandal have highlighted the failings of the Home Office. A recent leak of a draft report of the ongoing investigation into this affair, suggests the “Home Office failed in its legal duty to counter racial discrimination when it implemented its anti-immigration hostile environment programme” (Guardian 27.06.19).
The impact of austerity and outsourcing is also an important backdrop. At the launch meeting, John Vine (former Independent Chief Inspector for Borders & Immigration (ICIBI)) reminded everyone that the Home Office has not been a ring-fenced Department during the years of austerity. He argued that as a result the volume of visa applications was not being matched by sufficient resources. This is despite the fact that applicants for a standard visitor visa to the UK have to pay £95 regardless of whether or not their application is successful (page 19). The report notes that there are now only two Decision Making Centres (DMCs) (in Pretoria and Croydon) for applications from the whole of Africa (page 17). The contract for running these DMCs, along with the VACs, was awarded to a private company (Teleperformance UK Ltd) in 2014. With staff being expected to assess 40-60 applications per day (according to John Vine) it is maybe no surprise that the use of an algorithm has been adopted, which labels applications ‘green’, ‘amber’ or ‘red’. The current ICIBI has raised concerns that as a result “decisions were not being made on the merits of the individual case but on a set of generalised and detached indicators” (page 21).
The report also identifies a number of recommendations. These cover measures to improve both the process of applying for visas and the decision-making procedures. At the launch of the report, John Vine reminded the audience that, during his time as ICIBI, he made very similar suggestions in his annual reports to the Home Office. Another panellist, Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey, suggested that things were so problematic that Africans should consider boycotting the UK visa system to engender effective changes.
In summary, the UK visa system will be a central part of our future relationship with Africa. I have visited both South Africa (on a number of occasions) and Kenya for work and my experience couldn’t be more of a contrast with those who seek to travel in the opposite direction. The APPGs involved in producing this report should be commended for cataloguing the ways in which the current system is failing our partners in Africa and the subsequent damage this is doing to their view of the UK. The full report is available to download here and if you are a UK citizen please do write to your local MP and urge them to read the report and ask questions in parliament on the issues raised.
UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 7
A few weeks ago I flew out to Nairobi, Kenya for the last of a series of seminars looking at UK-Africa relations. The theme of the last meeting was ‘African Agency and UK-Africa Policy’. In this final blog post on the series I will provide a summary of the day and some of the key themes that stood out for me from the discussions, which were held at the very hospitable British Institute in Eastern Africa.
The first session considered the role played by African actors in security and defence relations. Kasaija Phillip Apuuli (Makere University) discussed the African Union (AU) and its significance as an African actor. He noted how the UK government has worked with the AU on combatting terrorism and violent extremism but also offered us some ongoing challenges, including the continuing existence of a number of unpalatable regimes in Africa, which undermine the AU’s coherence. We also heard from Jens-Peter Kamanga Dyrbak who works for the UK’s Department for International Development in Somalia. He observed how during the last decade the relationship between the UK and African governments has become much more of a genuine partnership, as attention has switched to supporting domestic processes of state building. The final presentation by Brigadier Mark Christie (Defence Advisor to the British High Commission in Nairobi) considered the UK’s defence footprint in Kenya. He suggested that military training is central to this relationship and that more is being done in an effort to increase Kenya’s agency.
After lunch we heard from Nic Hailey who is the current British High Commissioner in Kenya. He urged us to move beyond the narrative of Africa as a single coherent place and also introduced the important role played by the diaspora when considering agency.
The third session began with Alex Vines (Director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House). He switched attention from security to economic relations and in particular foreign direct investment (FDI). Alex considered the role of the UK (and the West more broadly) in Africa within the context of the so-called rise of the emerging powers and China in particular. He noted that the differences between these external actors can sometimes be overplayed and that often Chinese firms investing in Africa have the same concerns as UK firms. He argued that the story of the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Africa should be tempered somewhat given that the top three sources of FDI into Africa are the US, UK and France according to the 2015 UNCTAD investment report. The result, he claimed, has been that African states (maybe with the exception of South Africa) are engaged in a politics of diversification in their external relations, rather than simply a ‘look East’ strategy.
Latif Ismael (CEO of Transparency Solutions) then gave us a more case-specific account of his experiences from Somalia. He outlined how Turkey has been very active over recent years, particularly in providing both humanitarian relief for the 2011 famine and providing scholarships for students to study in Turkey.
In the final session of the day we heard from Sally Healy (Rift Valley Institute) and Mary Harper (Africa Editor at the BBC World Service). Sally shared some thoughts from her extensive experience as a political analyst in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She put current trends in UK-Africa relations into historical context and in particular the approach that New Labour took during its time in government. Sally argued that since 2010 the UK has moved away from a ‘saving Africa’ approach to working with specific countries where the UK has a comparative advantage.
Mary Harper then reflected on her time working for the BBC and the question of who can speak for Africa. She noted that during her time working for the BBC World Service there has been a proliferation of both domestic African radio and TV stations and alternative external players such as Chinese CCTV Africa and Al Jazeera.
It was a shame that some of the other Africa-based speakers who had been invited were unable to make it given the focus on African agency. Nevertheless, the day was another thought-provoking seminar that raised a number of interesting issues for me. I will just sketch out briefly three of these here.
- Dynamics of power within UK-Africa relations need to be considered in our analysis. During the seminar we heard a lot of talk about ‘partnership’ and notions of African agency. However, we should not ignore the fact that the UK’s relationship with Africa is forever shaped by its colonial past. During the rest of my brief stay in Nairobi this was abundantly clear to me. Put simply, ‘African agency’ is shaped by the past and should not be considered ahistorically.
- When thinking about African agency we need to think about which actors we are ascribing agency to. Africa is not a coherent voice and we heard during the day about some of the limitations of both the AU and the various regional organisations. While South Africa’s membership of BRICS represents an attempt to speak for the continent this is not something that is welcomed by other key states in Africa. At the very least we need to start from the ‘bottom-up’ by looking at specific actors and their ability to shape external relations with the UK.
- The rise of emerging powers in Africa means that UK-Africa relations should not be understood as a zero-sum game, whereby less influence from the UK simply equates to more African agency. During the seminar discussions we heard about China’s increasing influence across the continent and Turkey’s extensive impact in Somalia. What matters more for Africa is the impact that these external actors have. For example, the type of FDI and its potential to boost African development, matters more than where it comes from. Africa now has more choice in who it engages with than it did before, which has resulted in what Alex Vines called the ‘politics of diversification’ and this clearly poses challenges for the UK’s relations with the continent.
My blog posts on all of the six previous seminars are available here. There are a number of planned outputs and publications so watch this space! All the details of the seminar series are on the official website and for latest news you can also follow @UKAfricaSeminar on twitter.
UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 6
Earlier this month saw the sixth meeting of the ESRC seminar series on UK-Africa relations that I have been involved in. Two workshops hosted by the Royal African Society were followed by a public lecture in the evening. The overall theme for the day being ‘Africa and the UK Public Imagination’. In this post I will provide a short summary of the various presentations and sketch out what, for me at least, were some of the most interesting issues raised. Podcasts of the workshop presentations will be available on the website for the seminar series in due course.
During the morning workshop, our speakers considered how Africa is represented within campaigning traditions in the UK. Niheer Dasandi (University College London) reported on some research he had conducted with colleagues on the nature of Africa campaigning in the UK. Based on survey data, the emotional responses of individuals were assessed in relation to the use of what Dasandi described as ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ appeals to the public. The conclusion being that NGOs do have alternatives to the stereotypical negative imagery that has dominated Africa campaigning for years.
Nick Dearden (Director of Global Justice Now) picked up on these issues and unpacked some of the broader political dynamics at play. He convincingly argued how the ‘live aid model’ continues to be the dominant framing of Africa experienced by the public in the UK. He spoke from personal experience of the problems faced by NGOs in framing their campaigns on Africa. In particular, he argued that the use of ‘traditional’ imagery results in a depoliticisation of the challenges facing Africa and a focus on aid as the appropriate response, rather than broader campaigns on justice.
The limits to engendering a spirit of solidarity in campaigning on Africa, was then discussed in Lara Pawson’s very personal account of her experience of living and working in Angola. Pawson is the author of In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. She reflected on how hard it is for those of us in the UK to show real solidarity from afar and argued that more space should be given to Africans themselves.
Our afternoon workshop switched attention to how UK-Africa relations have been reflective of changing political dynamics at home. Allison Coyle and Sara Rich Dorman (both University of Edinburgh) outlined how the Scottish government has supported bilateral relations between Scotland and Malawi. This development partnership receives government funding to support the activities of civil society organisations who are at the heart of the relationship. They noted, that partly for reasons of scale, this results in a much more ‘grounded’ development partnership than the UK-wide approach led by the Department for International Development.
Dyfan Powel (University of Aberystwyth) then discussed the ‘Wales for Africa‘ programme, which is chiefly a grant administration scheme to support Welsh NGOs and their work in Africa. Both the Scottish and Welsh cases demonstrated how, partly for reasons of size and in the Welsh case in particular, as a result of the constitutional constraints upon the Welsh government, the underlying politics of development in Africa are not explicitly considered. Finally, Andrew Mycock (University of Huddersfield) in his discussion of the Commonwealth demonstrated how UK perceptions of Africa are still shaped by the historical legacies of colonialism.
In the evening we relocated to the School of Oriental and African Studies to hear Alex de Waal (Tufts University) give an overview of a new book he has edited entitled Advocacy in Conflict. This spoke to some of the themes discussed earlier in the day. A convincing case was made as to how transnational advocacy can often slide into over-simplified singular narratives that limit the agency of Africans themselves.
As always, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking day. On further reflection, I found a couple of themes to be of particular interest.
- It was clear from the discussions on Africa campaigning that context is important. As Nick Dearden acknowledged, during New Labour’s time in office there was, relatively speaking, a more conducive environment to challenging the dominant historical framing of Africa. However, the public’s perception is hard to shift because of the broader context and in particular the power of the mainstream media, which is dominated by the culture of celebrity. This was picked up in Alex de Waal’s evening lecture where he critiqued what he termed the ‘designer activists’ who can play a key role in agenda-setting.
- The seminar series as a whole has demonstrated how difficult it is to disaggregate the UK’s relations with Africa from a whole range of multilateral fora (be it the EU’s trade agreements with the continent, or the role of the Commonwealth, etc.). However, at the same time, the process of devolution has seen moves towards the constituent parts of the UK forming their own ‘independent’ relations with Africa. These are limited both in terms of the amount of funding available and the scope for them to offer a political alternative to the orthodoxy of mainstream NGOs.
Later this year, the series of seminars will conclude in Nairobi, Kenya where questions of ‘African agency’ will be considered in relation to the overall theme of ‘UK-Africa Relations’. My blog posts on previous seminars are all available here and for full details of the series go to the official website. For the latest news do follow @UKAfricaSeminar on twitter.
UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 5
Back in July I was involved in hosting the fifth meeting of an ESRC Seminar Series on UK-Africa relations at my own institution, Oxford Brookes University. The theme of the day was ‘Trade in UK-Africa Relations’. This blog post is a summary of the discussions and some reflections on a number of the key themes that, from my perspective, emerged out of the seminar. Podcasts of all the presentations are available at the seminar series website.
The first panel during the morning considered the relationship between trade and African development. Liz May, who is Head of Policy at Traidcraft, gave a fascinating account of how her organisation is involved in providing support to producers, both in Africa, and other parts of the Global South. Her presentation outlined three areas of current advocacy work:
- Controlling unfair practices of UK supermarkets via a new regulatory body (The Groceries Code Adjudicator).
- A focus on Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) and the investment chapters of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and in particular the problematic inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms, which limit the policy space for developing countries through what Liz described as ‘regulatory chill’.
- Increasing the legal power over the extra-territorial practices of UK companies.
Liz concluded that current UK government practice is, in some cases, undermining the developments that Traidcraft is seeking in all three of these campaign areas.
I then gave a presentation based on an ongoing research project, which is looking at the Trade Justice Movement (TJM), and its attempts to shape the debate on the relationship between trade and development. TJM was one of the three main pillars of Make Poverty History (MPH) in 2005. Ultimately TJM seeks to promote ‘trade justice’ as an alternative to free trade. During the last decade or more, however, the UK government has continued to support trade liberalisation and, in relation to Africa, the ‘prosperity agenda’ advanced by the Coalition government, discussed at the fourth seminar in the series, is even more resolutely in favour of free trade, with the emphasis on the benefits both for African economic growth and UK exporters and investors.
After lunch a further three speakers spoke to the broad theme of ‘UK-Africa Trade in a Changing Global Context’. Robin Gwynn, who has had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, specialising in Africa, discussed the development of UK trade policy towards Africa during the 5 year term of office of the Coalition government. Commercial diplomacy, he argued, became more central during this period and given the impacts of the financial crisis, the emphasis was on searching for new markets. Hence, Africa became more significant as it was viewed as a ‘high-growth region’. Robin suggested that trade alone will not sustain growth in Africa unless there is a focus on job-creating economic activity. He also noted that some African governments are requiring higher standards of trade and investment and they need to be supported in this endeavour. Ultimately trade and investment, argued Robin, have to be at the centre of any future development in Africa.
In contrast, the final two speakers, in very different ways, then exposed some of the dangers that trade and investment policy can have for African development. Peg Murray-Evans (University of York) explored the intricacies of the varied negotiating positions adopted by states in Southern Africa in their Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations with the EU. She noted how one of the outcomes of the regional EPA negotiations is that different African countries now have a range of trade regimes with the EU, which may ultimately skew UK trade and investment decisions. Peg concluded by noting the concern that South Africa and other key African states raised in the EPA negotiations, over the point made earlier in the day by Liz May, about the potential for these new trade deals to limit the ‘policy space’ for African countries.
Our final speaker, John Hilary (War On Want) began by reminding everyone that history tells us that successful development has not been achieved in other parts of the world via a ‘deep integration’ model of trade. Nevertheless, John argued that although the rhetoric might have been different under New Labour, in essence the UK government has continued to have a firm commitment to trade liberalisation across Africa. The second half of his presentation then considered the NGO response to this over recent years. He noted how many key players in the UK have moved away from trade in the period since MPH in 2005 and how difficult it was to build a mass public campaign around the EPA negotiations, discussed by Peg. John optimistically concluded that unlike EPAs, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is currently being negotiated between the US and the EU, allows a re-emergence of the debate on trade by opening up the broader issues of power being acquired by capital.
Overall, it was both an enjoyable and stimulating day of discussions. I was left with lots of questions and fewer answers! I guess this is the point, however. In particular, the following thoughts struck me as worth further consideration:
- Trade is increasingly about so much more than imports and exports, with investment becoming centre stage in both the UK and EU’s position.
- Is UK trade policy conducive to human development in Africa? Are existing regulatory measures (such as the focus on the practice of UK supermarkets) sufficient in this regard?
- There are alternatives to the orthodox view that trade liberalisation is good for development. However, for the UK government this remains a key assumption. By being critical of this stance, as John Hilary emphasised in his presentation, does not mean that we have to adopt a position where we are against the idea of trade. The challenge is how we move from the idea of fair trade to realising the more systemic changes captured by the concept of ‘trade justice’.
The next seminar in the series is scheduled for 20 January 2016 in London where the theme will be ‘Africa in the UK Public Imagination’. Further details and podcasts from other seminars can be found at the the series website. For updates do follow the series on twitter: @UKAfricaSeminar