For Britons accustomed to tuning into the nightly news or leafing through the daily papers, Afro-optimism has recently been in short supply.
Images of Eritreans and Somalis, stranded in Calais refugee camps and exhausted by the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, seem all too familiar for viewers weaned on TV appeals for a stricken continent.
Take a trip to Parliament, and the prevailing view of Africa is markedly different. Speaking to African Business, Grant Shapps, the UK’s Minister for Africa, insists that the continent is on the rise – and says that optimistic engagement will continue to trump the voices of isolation when it comes to British policy.
“Not being involved in this part of the world would be utter madness for Britain – it would be like ignoring potential incredible markets in both directions,” he enthuses. For some, Shapps’ passionate vision of Britain as a ‘small island with global reach’ may appear to vie uneasily with the public’s ambivalence towards African migration. But the Minister insists that Britain’s successful engagement begins far from UK border posts.
“I think we see our role as to provide help in places which need assistance rather than to take the view that the solution lies in bringing Africa to the UK – which will neither solve the problems here or there,” he says.
Shapps argues that a yearning for Europe is depriving Africa of its most capable citizens – the young and mobile – and that new forms of assistance are needed to stem the exodus. His attempt to kick-start Britain’s centuries-long involvement with the continent will span roles at the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, focusing on business promotion, development assistance and traditional diplomacy.
Speaking a day ahead of a trip to Rwanda, Shapps says that all three strands will be on the table during talks in Kigali, long a favoured development partner of the UK.
“This is a country with whom since it has been rebuilding we’ve had a huge input, I think we’ve spent probably £123m a year in international development terms with that country. We also have a diplomatic relationship with some bumps and knocks on the way or good things which happen. But we’re always interested in deepening relationships.”
Although Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government might welcome the business and development support, Shapps’ call for the continent’s leaders to respect term limits could prove more controversial. As Kigali considers allowing Kagame a third term in office in the face of international criticism, it’s a conversation that Shapps says he will “certainly” be having with his Rwandan counterparts.
Echoing Barack Obama’s African Union speech in July, Shapps insists that strict term limits are the key to stronger governance.
“Look at Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, you’ll think what you want about the way he ran that country and he’ll have many critics, but you can’t take away the fact that he just allowed the first democratic transfer of power in Nigeria – that’s a legacy worth having”.
But with a nod to the fact that Britain no longer calls the shots on the continent, Shapps admits that relations with African countries will not be defined by lectures on different governance systems.
“We never want to pull our punches, but that said we’re not going round the world to lecture people on their systems of government – that’s not a mature relationship,” he says.
As important will be Britain’s ambition to increase business ties with the continent – a relationship historically dependent on the import of raw materials from the continent, and the export of finished products from Britain’s industrial heartlands.
Nowadays, Shapps says, the talk is much more likely to be around technology transfer, with British mobile companies penetrating remote villages powered by UK solar companies. As the continent’s businesses increasingly look overseas for new export markets, the debate has turned to ways of tearing down old trade barriers and eroding protectionism. Barack Obama’s recent renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act – a Clinton-era programme that allows African manufacturers tariff-free access to the US market – appears to light the way to a future of free trade.
A similar bid to open new markets lies behind Energy Africa, a flagship UK scheme due to launch in October that aims to take advantage of the plummeting costs of solar technology and British expertise in the sector.
“We’re going to sign compacts with African countries who want to make this happen. The compact will say that they will work with us to remove barriers. Companies are only able to do this if there’s a level playing field…We think it’s the market’s place to fill the gaps in and we will perhaps help with early stage financing,” he says.
Working alongside Barack Obama’s Power Africa, a similar initiative launched in 2012, and other donor partners, the scheme envisages achieving universal electricity access by 2030 – a key UN Sustainable Development Goal.
But in an acknowledgement of the friendly rivalry at play with the United States, Shapps says that Energy Africa is intended to have a much greater impact in remote areas than its American counterpart.
“[Obama’s] approach is, we’ll build big power stations, build a grid and deliver it that way. I think that’s probably quite good for industry, it’s necessary for cities. I think it’s unimaginable that it will ever get round to delivering to this woman called Elizabeth that I met in a remote village in Tanzania…who I don’t think will ever see that power.”
Such cooperative initiatives, dependent on the goodwill of African countries, may seem modest for a country whose history looms large on the continent. But Shapps insists that the UK’s soft-power approach will ultimately prove more effective than some of Africa’s more forceful global partners.
“The Chinese picture is mixed, I’d say we have a much more sophisticated approach to development in Africa, where we really focus on things like building better institutions and poverty reduction…Britain is really good at thinking through how we don’t just do development but leave the populations better off.”
If the combative talk is anything to go by, it appears that the UK is refusing to accept its anointed status as a relic of Africa’s imperial past.
“Healthy competition is great…I love to see those communists competing with us,” jokes Shapps.