Sub-Saharan Africa is a region of 49 countries of immense complexity and diversity. In the next 30 years to 2050 it will see unprecedented social and economic changes, some of which present enormous economic and social opportunities. Others create challenges which could be overwhelming for some individual nations. The African Union (AU) has developed a long-term strategy to meet these challenges and to harness the opportunities. The UK should take a greater interest in, and seek a stronger partnership with, Sub-Saharan Africa to support the delivery of the AU’s long term strategy.
Sub-Saharan Africa is a region with some of the fastest growing economies in the world.1 Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.1 billion by 2050; this growth is resulting in a rapidly expanding middle class, and a growing proportion of young people across the continent. Africa is the biggest bloc at the United Nations (UN) and the AU is growing in significance. Therefore, it is of strategic and geopolitical importance to the UK. It is a region where the UK really can make a difference. Successive governments have said that Africa should be given a higher priority across Whitehall, but have failed to make this a reality in the face of competing demands.
During her visit to Cape Town in September 2018, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May MP, announced a “fundamental strategic shift” in the UK’s engagement with the countries of Africa, known as the ‘strategic approach’. We welcome the ‘uplift’ of staff in the region that followed the announcement, but are disappointed to conclude that the Government’s ‘strategic approach’ to Africa falls short—it is not a strategy, but rather some broad ideas and themes. The Government should publish a clearly articulated list of its priorities for its engagement with Africa, and an action plan for meeting them. The context of the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU), and the Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development, present a timely opportunity for a renewal of the UK’s engagement in Africa.
During the course of our inquiry, it became clear that aspects of the UK’s domestic policy have a direct impact on its reputation in Africa. We received overwhelming evidence that the UK’s visa policies are damaging its reputation, and we recommend that the Home Office should urgently review the UK’s approach to the issuing of visas for people from Africa. We also heard evidence of the lasting impact of the historical legacy of slavery and colonialism on perceptions of the UK in the region. It is necessary to address appropriately both the treatment of black people in the UK, and this historical legacy, including through fostering better knowledge among UK citizens.
We were struck by evidence that remittances from the UK to Sub-Saharan Africa exceed aid and charitable giving. Remittances are given too little profile in the narrative of the UK’s economic relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Government should work to lower the cost of remitting money to the region. We also urge the Government to embed consultation with diaspora communities into policy making.
It is already clear that the impact on Africa of COVID-19, both in health and economic terms, will be very damaging. This adds urgency and scale to the collective responses to the challenges we identify in this report, which focuses principally on Sub-Saharan Africa. Significant economic support from international partners will be needed to prevent economic gains over the last two decades being reversed. In particular, the Government should support the AU’s call for a two-year standstill for African countries’ public and private debt, and continue to work with international partners to ensure that any COVID-19 vaccine that is developed is made available to developing countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We conclude that the UK’s future relationship with the countries of Africa and their regional institutions needs to be based, as has not always been the case in the past, on a genuine partnership. The UK should continue to support constructive reforms to the rules-based international order, including the UN Security Council, to provide African countries with a voice commensurate with their size and importance. We also welcome the Government’s support for the use of UN-assessed contributions to fund AU-led peacekeeping missions. The reboot of the UK-AU relationship through the Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 2019, provides further opportunities for co-operation. The cultural, educational, language and other soft power connections of the Commonwealth provide a substantial basis for a further strengthening of the UK’s ties. We believe the Government should work with the 19 African members of the Commonwealth to seek ways in which its work in the continent could be strengthened.
We conclude that working with international partners should remain an important part of the UK’s approach to Sub-Saharan Africa. We identify common interests between the UK and France, particularly in the Sahel, and the need for new methods of co-operation to be built up with the EU institutions and members states. Many African governments regard China as an important partner and source of investment, and the UK should seek to work constructively with China where appropriate, especially through multilateral institutions, on issues such as debt, health, climate change and trade, while defending UK national interests and values.
We welcome the range of effective UK official development assistance (ODA) projects across the region. These include Aid for Trade—particularly in relation to the African Continental Free Trade Area—support for agriculture and health, and work to address the underlying causes of insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa. We regret the Government’s decision to merge the well-regarded Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as was announced pre-emptively in advance of the Integrated Review. We request urgent confirmation that UK ODA will continue to be administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective. We seek urgent assurances that the merger does not represent a change to the UK’s approach to ODA to Sub-Saharan Africa.
We find that UK trade with and investment in Sub-Saharan Africa has flatlined over the last decade. Concerted action by the Government will be needed to address this. The UK–Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 was a high-profile beginning, but follow-up will be required. We also identify leaving the EU as an opportunity for the UK to re-cast its trade relationships in the region, and remedy some of the defects in the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements. We were surprised to hear that no detailed work has yet been done to consider how to offer better access to African exporters.
There remain significant challenges to peace and security in Sub-Saharan Africa, which are likely to be exacerbated by wider trends affecting the region, including population growth, weak states, governance challenges, violent ideologies and the climate crisis. Witnesses highlighted instability in the Sahel, Nigeria, Somalia and Cameroon as of particular concern, and areas where the UK could play a constructive role including through peacekeeping, diplomacy, and the support for human rights. We welcome the UK’s increased attention to instability in the Sahel, as part of the ‘strategic approach’, but are concerned that the Government’s wider strategy in the Sahel is unclear, and the UK risks being unable to add value in a highly contested space. We conclude that the Government should, in its Integrated Review, consider how the UK can best use its resources and influence to develop longer-term strategies to prevent conflict, and above all to prevent genocide, and support regional partners.
We conclude that at the same time as the UK pursues new economic opportunities and seeks to tackle security challenges, human rights remain critical. The Government should consider support for accountability, human rights, the rule of law and anti-corruption as a package that helps build the necessary conditions for democracy to function in Sub-Saharan Africa.
1 Prior to the COVID-19 crisis.