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.

Brexit, Democracy and UK Trade Policy

Last week the UK government published its Trade Bill, which formally starts the process of moving towards an independent trade policy. Member states of the European Union (EU) are part of a customs union. This means they operate a unified trade policy, which includes common external tariffs on imports from outside the EU. The UK government has already made it clear it intends to leave the customs union as part of the Brexit process. Prior to the start of the legislative process, the Department for International Trade published a Trade White Paper on 9 October 2017, which set out the principles guiding the UK’s future trade policy. This included numerous references to stakeholder engagement and as part of a consultation exercise it included an invitation for submissions on all aspects of the developing approach set out in the White Paper.

In this post I outline the major points of my submission to this consultation process. The deadline was Monday 6 November 2017 and it was therefore with some surprise that I discovered the following morning that the government was publishing its Trade Bill in parliament. This led to criticism from trade unions and NGOs who had also contributed to the consultation. For example, War on Want argued that given the timing of the publication of the bill it was clear that ‘the input of thousands of responses from members of the public could not have been considered’.

Given my long-standing research interest in the EU’s trade and development policy to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, my response focused in the main on the fourth of the five principles outlined in the White Paper, namely ‘supporting developing countries to reduce poverty’. In doing so, I also explored some of the tensions between this ambition and the other four principles (‘trade that is transparent and inclusive’, ‘supporting a rules-based global trading environment’, ‘boosting our trade relationships’ and ‘ensuring a level playing field’).

My criticism of the White Paper ultimately rests on some of the problematic assumptions it makes about the relationship between trade and development. These assumptions were also demonstrated in an important speech made by Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, in Manchester on 29 September 2016, where he suggested that ‘free trade is often a ladder to the top’. A similar claim was made by former International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, in her speech at the Conservative Party conference on 3 October 2017, when she boldly claimed that ‘trade, investment and free markets provide the route out of poverty’.

These claims are advanced in the first half of the White Paper where the role of trade in the global economy is discussed. The conclusion one is supposed to draw from this is that free trade was at the heart of the historical development of the British economy and hence this is something that should be recommended to developing countries today. However, as respected economist Ha-Joon Chang has convincingly demonstrated, Britain employed tariffs for a significant period before it was able to adopt a regime of free trade during the nineteenth century. Chang notes that ‘the overall liberalization of the British economy … of which trade liberalization was just a part, was a highly controlled affair overseen by the state, and not achieved through a laissez-faire approach’ (Ha-Joon Chang, Kicking Away the Ladder, p.24). Hence, what the White Paper suggests are protectionist measures (such as subsidies for domestic industry) could conversely be understood as legitimate development strategies.

The section of the White Paper on UK trade policy and how it can support developing countries includes a commitment that as the UK leaves the EU it ‘will maintain current access for the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to UK markets and aim to maintain preferential access of other (non-LDC) developing countries’ (p.32). This is to be welcomed. However, the aim of replicating the EU’s existing Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) is much more problematic. It is clear to anyone who has followed the EU’s negotiation of EPAs with ACP countries, that they met significant resistance from both many ACP governments, and civil society organisations (CSOs) across Europe and regions within the ACP. In part, their concerns relate directly to the assumptions noted above about the ‘policy space’ needed for development. Both the Tanzanian and Nigerian governments have indicated that they are concerned that signing an EPA will undermine their ability to adopt government policies to support industrialization. In Nigeria, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria has been particularly effective in lobbying against the EPA, arguing that it will harm the domestic industrial sector.

Moreover, they have also voiced concerns over attempts by the EU to introduce the so-called ‘Singapore Issues’ (competition policy, transparency in government procurement, equal treatment for foreign investors, and trade facilitation measures) that were rejected at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2003 at the Cancún Ministerial. There is therefore a potential conflict of principles in the White Paper between the expressed concern for developing countries and the suggestion that the ‘UK will look to secure greater access to overseas markets for UK goods exports as well as push for greater liberalisation of global services, investment and procurement markets’ (p.27). These are precisely the issues that African states and CSOs have identified as problematic because they would constrain the ability of ACP states to seek to diversify their exports and support the development of an industrial sector.

The White Paper’s strong support for the conclusion of the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) also undermines the claim to be supporting developing countries. TiSA has emerged as a separate arrangement after talks on services stalled within the WTO due to resistance from developing countries. They have expressed concerns that it would allow transnational corporations to turn essential public services into commodities that can be traded.

It is therefore highly likely that the UK will meet significant resistance if it seeks to simply replicate EPAs. African states have been able to demonstrate significant agency in the EPA negotiations and there would be greater scope for this in negotiations with the UK. They have made it clear that rather than deep and comprehensive trade liberalisation, what they want is a gradual process of engagement with global markets, which if it is to be developmental, needs to be facilitated by state support. Therefore, a much better alternative would be for the UK to introduce an improved Generalised System of Preferences that goes above and beyond the EU’s current ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement with LDCs. Hence, I would support the recommendations made by Traidcraft in its February 2017 report for the adoption of ‘a preference scheme offering duty-free, quota-free market access to imports from economically vulnerable countries, including but not limited to the least developed countries’ (p.16).

My final concerns relate to the democratic accountability of any future UK trade policymaking. These were reinforced by the superficial nature of the process of consultation on the White Paper itself. While it is reassuring to note in the White Paper that there is a plan for regular engagement with stakeholders, it is unclear what is meant by the phrase ‘we will ensure that Parliament, the devolved administrations, devolved legislatures, business and civil society are engaged throughout’ (p.29). Prior to this there is reference to the need for a legislative framework that allows for the quick negotiation and ratification of trade agreements. Trade negotiations are notoriously long and difficult to conclude and this desire for speed should not come at the cost of democratic accountability. As I, and 54 other academics have argued in a recent letter published in The Telegraph on 20 October 2017, modern trade agreements cover a wide range of policy areas. It is therefore vital that government makes a clear and unequivocal commitment that parliament and the devolved administrations/legislatures will have a say in both formulating negotiating mandates and ratifying any future trade agreements agreed by the UK. Moreover, information related to trade negotiations should be made public so that stakeholders are able to provide proper democratic input into the process.

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.

  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

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 4

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.