Tag Archives: Coalition government

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

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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 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.