On Wednesday 8 September, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion by Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Conservative) that:

this House takes note of the Report from the International Relations and Defence Committee ‘The UK and sub-Saharan Africa: prosperity, peace and development co-operation’.

What did the report say?

On 10 July 2020, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published a wide-ranging report on the UK’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa. The report covered several areas, such as:

  • The UK’s Africa strategy, including the co-ordination of Government departments, communication of the UK’s approach and the Integrated Review.
  • Africa’s regional organisations, such as the African Union and the Commonwealth.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development, including employment and business opportunities.
  • The UK’s economic relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, including its use of official development assistance (ODA), its trade with, and investment in, the region and the diaspora.
  • Peace and security in sub-Saharan Africa, such as challenges the region faces and its impact on women.
  • Human rights, democracy and governance in sub-Saharan Africa.

In its summary, the committee said the UK should “take a greater interest in and seek a stronger partnership with” the region. It said the Government’s ‘strategic approach’ towards sub-Saharan Africa, first announced by then Prime Minister Theresa May in September 2018, is “not a strategy, but rather some broad ideas and themes”.

The committee made a number of recommendations across all topics covered in its report. These included the following:

  • The Government should publish a clearly articulated list of its priorities for its engagement with Africa, and an action plan for meeting them.
  • The Home Office should review the UK’s approach to issuing visas to people from Africa.
  • The Government should work to lower the cost of remitting money to Africa.
  • The Government should embed consultation with diaspora communities into policy making.
  • In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government should support the African Union’s call for a two-year standstill for African countries’ public and private debt.
  • 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.
  • The UK should work with international partners, such as France and China, on issues such as debt, health, climate change and trade.
  • The Government should use the Integrated Review to consider how the UK can best use its resources and influence to develop longer-term strategies to prevent conflict and support regional partners.

The committee also called for assurances that the merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) would not represent a change in the UK’s approach to ODA spending in sub-Saharan Africa.

What has the Government said?

Response to the committee’s report

The Government responded to the committee’s report on 10 September 2020. Addressing the recommendations set out above, the Government said:

  • It had published its strategic approach in the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry ‘Beyond Aid: the UK’s Strategic Engagement in Africa’ but that it is reviewing the approach in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing Integrated Review.
  • The Home Office has no plans to review its approach to issuing visas, but the UK Visa and Immigration service (UKVI) is looking into opening application points in more African locations.
  • It is “working to address the market constraints responsible for high remittance prices”, including working with key stakeholders like the World Bank, and through actions like digitisation, transparency and improving data quality.
  •  It is committed to furthering its engagement with diaspora communities. It said that, as the host, it will use COP26 to boost African voices and highlight evidence from research across the continent.
  • It supported the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), which was agreed by global finance ministers in April 2020. The DSSI paused debt payments from the poorest countries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • It will engage with African Commonwealth partners on how the work of commonwealth institutions can be strengthened in Africa, as part of its regular engagement with them.
  • It takes a “nuanced and differentiated” approach to China’s engagement in Africa, in which the Government seeks to maximise the positive impacts of its relationship and mitigate the risks.

The Government also stated that the merger of DFID with the FCO would bring together its overseas efforts to maximise the UK’s global influence. It said that it had undertaken a review of aid spending due to the economic impact of the pandemic, in order to ensure that it could meet its commitment of spending 0.7% of the UK’s national income on aid. However, the Government subsequently announced a temporary reduction in the overseas aid target to 0.5% (see below).

UK-Africa Investment Summit 2020

On 20 January 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London. In attendance were heads of state and ministers from African governments, CEOs and representatives from African and British businesses, investors, financial institutions and other interested parties.

At the summit, the UK Government set out its ambition to increase trade and investment links with Africa. In particular, it said it would:

  • Increase trade between the UK and Africa.
  • Support African countries to transform their economies, including by empowering women and young people.
  • Mobilise sustainable finance, including a step-change in work on infrastructure financing and a new partnership with the City of London.
  • Enable Africa’s clean energy potential.

A number of financial agreements were also reached during the summit. Commercial deals of over £6.5 million between UK companies and African partners were announced. In addition, there was a commitment from the UK Government of over £1.5 billion in UK aid-funded initiatives, which the Government expected would mobilise over £2.4 billion of additional private investment for Africa.

The Department for International Trade held an African Investment Conference in January 2021. The event was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. During the conference, Boris Johnson reaffirmed his ambition “for the UK to be Africa’s investment partner”.

The conference focused on four sectors:

  • sustainable infrastructure;
  • renewable energy;
  • financial and professional services; and
  • agriculture and agri-tech.

What has happened recently?

Reduction in the UK’s spend on Official Development Assistance

As part of the Spending Review on 25 November 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak stated that ODA would be reduced from 0.7% of the UK’s national income to 0.5% of its national income for 2021. He said that it was the Treasury’s intention to return to 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows”. Commenting on this, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reduction in aid spending may be guided by “a desire to balance the current budget”, which it believes may not be achieved until at least 2025/26. Due to this, the IFS concluded that the reduction of ODA may “last for several years”.

In a statement to the House of Commons on 21 April 2021, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab detailed how the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) would spend its £8,115m of ODA allocation, accounting for approximately 80% of the UK’s total ODA spend. He said that the FCDO will spend around half its budget in Africa and also committed to the UK remaining the largest donor to the African Development Fund.

Publication of the Integrated Review

In March 2021, the Government published its Integrated Review into security, defence, development and foreign policy. The review highlighted key trends which may have significant impact on sub-Saharan Africa in the coming years:

  • Global poverty: whilst absolute poverty is estimated to be almost eliminated in Latin America and Asia, Africa will increasingly be left behind. By 2045 it is likely that around 85% of the poorest billion people will live in Africa.
  • Demographics: global population growth to 2030 will be greatest in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Climate change: the effects of global climate change will be felt most acutely in sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia and the Middle East.
  • Terrorism: poor governance and disorder in Africa is likely to increase space for terrorist and extremist groups to operate.

Focusing on the UK’s relationship with Africa, the review stated that the Government will partner with the African Union in areas such as climate and biodiversity, free trade, conflict prevention, and promoting good governance and human rights. It said it would work in particular with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana. It highlighted that South Africa and Nigeria account for 46% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa and 60% of the region’s trade with the UK.

The review stated that it would continue to support conflict resolution efforts in Somalia and Sudan, as well as supporting United Nations (UN) and African peacekeeping operations. The Government also said it would support French operations in the Sahel.

UK presidency of COP26

In 2021, the UK, in partnership with Italy, is president of the UN Conference of the Parties (COP26). The UK will host the UN’s climate change conference in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021. The Government has set out its goals for the conference, as follows:

  • Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach.
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats.
  • Mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020.
  • Work together to deliver.

Ahead of COP26, the House of Commons International Development Committee launched an inquiry into the Government’s progress in putting climate change at the centre of its aid policy. The committee’s call for evidence closed on 10 May 2021 and it has held a number of oral evidence sessions. However, it has not yet reported on its findings.

What have commentators said?

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has commented on many of the issues raised in the committee’s report. In written evidence provided for the inquiry, the group called for a Prosperity Commission, convened by the UK and Africa, to build on the momentum from the UK-Africa investment summit.

Responding to the merger of DFID and the FCO, experts from the ODI had mixed views. Whilst some criticised the Government’s decision, arguing that “having one institution with two goals is a recipe for costly muddle and mess”, others said that it was an opportunity to reset relations between the UK and Africa. Dirk Willem te Velde, principal research fellow and head of the International Economic Development Group, said that the new combined department “is ideally placed to support a coherent UK strategy for Africa”.

The ODI also highlighted issues with the UK’s visa system, noting that it is less costly and time consuming to obtain a visa for travel from Africa to the US, EU or China. It said that these issues are “damaging to the country’s long-standing historical ties with Africa” and suggested three practical measures the UK could introduce to combat the “perceived discrimination” against African visitors, such as:

  • Visas should be easily accessible for legitimate visitors. The fees for such visas should be reduced and the minimum validity period should be increased (from 30 days to 24 months).
  • Student visas should be the simplest and most accessible type of visa.
  • The UK should sign bilateral reciprocal agreements with the governments of individual African countries waiving visa requirements for diplomatic passport holders.

It also argued that the UK should conduct a comprehensive review of the visa system.

The Royal African Society, alongside the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa, has considered the challenges and opportunities for post-Brexit trade between the UK and Africa. The group argued that the UK should learn lessons from the EU’s trade arrangements with Africa and move beyond the historical reliance on the export of minerals and primary goods and the import of high-value goods and services in Africa’s trade with the UK.

The group also set out several recommendations for UK policymakers, such as:

  • Future trade arrangements should be based on mutual recognition and should support Africa’s regional integration and development plans.
  • The UK Government should seek to encourage engagement on these issues beyond a small number of African countries. It should also include the views of African trade partners as well as the devolved administrations of the UK.
  • Trade and investment policy should be aligned with the UK’s development assistance programmes.

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Cover image by James Wiseman on Unsplash.