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.

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 2

Last month I enjoyed a day-trip to the University of Birmingham to attend the second of an ESRC-funded seminar series on UK-Africa relations, which I am involved in organising. More details on the seminar series are available at our website – You can also follow the twitter feed of the seminar series on @UKAfricaSeminar.

Our second session focused on ‘Development Policy in UK-Africa relations: From New Labour to Coalition and Austerity’. I thought I would share a brief summaryof the presentations and debates that took place and conclude with some of my own thoughts.

The opening presentation saw two distingushed speakers, with significant practitioner experience, provide their thoughts on how UK-Africa relations have developed over the years. We heard from Miles Wickstead who acted as the head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa formed during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. His comments were supported by intejections from Barrie Ireton, a former Director General of the UK’s Departent for International Development (DFID).

Miles Wickstead outlined what he saw as the defining moments in the UK government’s relations with Africa. Key historical points in the relationship were identified as the end of the Cold War and then the election of New Labour and the creation of DFID. He then offered some insights from his work with the Commission for Africa (CfA). The CfA’s report was published in 2005 and it became a key document for the G8 Gleneagles summit later that year. He concluded that of the three key elements of the CfA’s report – debt relief, more aid and trade justice – it is the latter that has seen the least progress.

We then heard from Kirsty McNeill who reflected on her time as a former Downing Street adviser during New Labour’s term of office. She spoke on ‘Idealism or Interests: What really drove Labour’s Africa Policy?’. The central argument was that the focus on Africa was based on idealism and not interests – development is not a big vote winner. There were also some concluding thoughts on current debates within the Labour Party and reference was made to a recent speech by Jim Murphy MP, who is currently Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. This speech maps out an agenda for Labour if they return to govermnent in 2015 and it is pleasing to see that equality and the rights of workers now form a more central part of the analysis.

After lunch Donna Arrondelle (University College London) and Meera Sebaratnam (School of Oriental and African Studies) moved the discussion forward to a focus on the coalition government. Donna spoke about her doctoral research, which is concerned with how the UK’s current international development policy is framed – particularly in terms of the problems that are identified – and how this relates to public understandings of development. Meanwhile, Meera argued that under the coalition the biggest changes in development policy have been an increased emphasis on results and a portrayal of aid as being part of the national interest.

The day concluded with a virtual presentation, via youtube, from Jonathan Glennie (Overseas Development Institute). He argued that aid is one of the least important things that the UK can do to support African development and that it needs to be assessed, not simply in terms of how many schools have been built, etc., but with reference to the wider impacts that result from a long-term reliance on aid.

Overall, another fascinating day of debate and discussions. To conclude I thought I would share some of the thoughts/questions that I scribbled down during my train journey home:

  1. To what extent has the global context for aid changed since the days when New Labour came into power in 1997? Will there be as much focus on Africa if Labour return to power in 2015? Is the UK an increasingly peripheral player?
  2. Is a focus on aid and its effectiveness missing the wider issue of the way the global economy is organised? In partiuclar, do we need to look more at how multilateral and bilateral trade agreements continue to create obstacles to African development?
  3. Why have the Liberal Democrats been so silent on Africa and development policy more broadly during their time in government?

The next meeting takes place at the University of Warwick on 23 September 2014.

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 – 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?