Tag Archives: Africa

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 7

13 Jul

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

31 Jan

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.

Peter Hillmore (1985) Live Aid: The Greatest Show On Earth, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, p.2

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

21 Sep

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.

Panel 1: The UK and African Development: Fair trade and/or trade justice?

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:

  1. Controlling unfair practices of UK supermarkets via a new regulatory body (The Groceries Code Adjudicator).
  2. 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’.
  3. 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:

  1. Trade is increasingly about so much more than imports and exports, with investment becoming centre stage in both the UK and EU’s position.
  2. 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?
  3. 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

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 4

30 Apr

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

15 Dec

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.

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 2

17 Jun

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:

  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.

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series

30 Jan

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 – 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 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?