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.

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 – 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

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?

Declinism and South Africa

Over recent months, international media coverage has portrayed South Africa as a ‘broken’ country. Only this week we have seen on our TV screens evidence of serious police brutality, which reminded me of many of the images from the 1980s that had such an impact on me as an impressionable teenager. Similarly, in August 2012 we watched in horror as striking platinum miners in Marikana were shot dead by police. Such events have generated a ‘declinist’ reading of the situation in South Africa, most aptly demonstrated by The Economist on the front cover of its non-UK edition in October 2012.Image

What is striking here (no pun intended) is that such views contrast quite sharply with the orthodox narrative used to depict developments in the rest of the African continent in recent years, which points to rapid rates of economic growth in a number of countries (in particular Angola and Nigeria) that in 2011 were dubbed ‘African Lions’ in the very same publication. It seems that South Africa is being singled out as an isolated case in a continent that is otherwise making economic advances. This perception provides the flip-side to earlier suggestions that Africa was the ‘hopeless continent’ when again South Africa was described as the exception to the rule.

Inside the 20th October 2012 issue the two articles ‘Cry, the beloved country’ and ‘Over the rainbow’ paint a worrying picture of the situation in South Africa as it approaches the end of two decades since the first multi-racial election. The assessment of what has gone wrong since 1994 suggests that the major causal factor has been the incompetence of the African National Congress (ANC), which has led the government throughout the post-apartheid period. Former President, Thabo Mbeki, and current incumbent Jacob Zuma, are charged with leading a party that has fostered corruption and has failed to attract the foreign investment needed to address rising inequality and the grinding poverty that is the daily existence of the majority of the population. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), are claimed to have the ‘right ideas’ and striking miners are seen as a serious dent to South Africa’s reputation as a potential investment opportunity.

Whilst such analysis correctly identifies the key tensions in South African society – inequality, unemployment and poverty – and notes some of the undoubted failings of the ANC, it fails to identify the ideological alignment of the ANC government to neoliberalism and the place of South Africa within global capitalism as key parts of the ‘problem’. In this sense I was reminded of an article by John S. Saul entitled ‘Cry for the Beloved Country: The Post-Apartheid Denouement’ published back in 2001 in the Monthly Review.

Here Saul emphasises, as many have done, how the negotiated transition to democracy was designed as a way to organise the handover of political power to the ANC, whilst at the same time maintaining the continuity of capitalist economic relations and an acceptance of the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Saul’s conclusion that the transition has failed to address the underlying social relations within South Africa, despite being made over ten years ago, looks ever more pertinent as each year passes. The central premise of both the ANC’s economic strategy, and the analysis presented in The Economist, is the need to attract foreign investment to South Africa through a policy framework designed to create a set of business-friendly conditions. What is not questioned, however, are the potential consequences of such an unrestrained engagement with the global economy. It is this ideological side to the ANC’s hegemony within South Africa that is often ignored by those who focus on the more coercive measures adopted by the state to quash displays of discontent amongst South Africa’s justifiably impatient majority.

Whilst it is certainly true that South Africa needs a more effective government than the one it currently has, it also requires a significant shift to the left in ideological terms if it is to address such divisive socio-economic inequalities. It is becoming increasingly apparent that despite the removal of Mbeki, this is not possible within the confines of the ANC. The DA who argue in favour of the need for ‘an economy that is characterized primarily by the free choices of individuals’, offer little in the way of a genuine alternative, except for a potentially more efficient and less corrupt neoliberal state. The need for change runs much deeper than the mainstream declinist critics of the ANC government suggest.