In the midst of a referendum campaign which delivered a historic decision by the UK to exit the European Union, the UK’s relationship with Africa was largely relegated to the sidelines. While Africa’s key role in disgorging thousands of refugees onto the shores of an unstable Europe adds fuel to the debate, there was little substantive discussion about what a “Brexit” will mean for ties between Britain and its African partners.
For the Department for International Development (DfID), the UK agency which has long played a frontline role in driving Britain’s relations with Africa, making the case for continued engagement remains top of the agenda, regardless of the referendum result. Speaking to African Business prior to the referendum decision at the African Development Bank meetings in Lusaka, Zambia, DfID minister Nick Hurd urged Britons weary of foreign entanglements to see Africa as key to their security and prosperity.
“We’re tackling issues where we can present to the British public that it’s in the national interest – trying to prevent migration, tackling the spread of controllable diseases. This matters enormously to my children in terms of the world they’re going to grow up in and surely it’s in our interests to shape a better future for young Africans,” he says.
It’s a case that needs to be constantly restated to a British public inching towards isolation, sceptical of foreign aid and subject to tabloid allegations about DfID profligacy. With a total expenditure limit of £11.1bn this year, DfID is one of the few government departments to have its spending protected throughout the era of austerity, following the UK’s pledge to maintain aid spending at 0.7% of gross national income.
In a bid to justify this outlay, the agency is attempting to re-focus on the kind of long-term, transformative work in Africa that Hurd says must provide tangible outcomes for both African recipients and the British taxpayer.
“Part of our contribution to the migration crisis is saying what we can do to give people better reasons to stay. A lot of what we’re doing is already in terms of improving quality of life in their own countries, and more and more will be around economic development and helping to create jobs and livelihoods,” he says.
As a starting point, DfID is zeroing in on a rare issue which unites both hard-pressed taxpayers and development enthusiasts – corruption. In May, a flagship London conference hosted by the British government drew attention to the ongoing plunder of global resources, with delegates from dozens of countries passing a raft of graft-targeting measures. Yet a well-publicised gaffe by the British prime minister, David Cameron, who referred to guests Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt” in the presence of the Queen, showed the potential diplomatic minefield that awaits DfID. Despite the faux pas, Hurd insists that the conference achieved its aims – and argues that an open and frank discussion with African governments remains a cornerstone of DfID’s relationships.
“There’s a reason President Buhari has put it at the top of his agenda in Nigeria – he knows it’s a big problem. The really big problem is the corruption of the elite, the few. I think you’ve got be frank about this otherwise it remains unchallenged. Our partnership with African countries is built on the ability to say things that are sometimes uncomfortable.”
If so, many African governments will be hoping for a two-way process. Despite its leading role at the conference, Britain has been criticised for lecturing others while ignoring corruption closer to home – notably in its network of offshore tax havens. In a testy response to Cameron’s comments, President Buhari demanded that stolen Nigerian money held in Western bank accounts be returned to his government.
Nevertheless, if DfID takes seriously its new role as an anti-corruption scourge, it could provide the kind of long-term vision which critics say the department has lacked. In a broadly positive report which highlighted DfID’s role in improving global sanitation and hygiene, the Independent Commission on Aid argued that the agency had recorded a “weaker performance” on project sustainability. With most schemes only lasting three to five years, the report says, UK aid struggles to become a “permanent part of people’s lives.” That may be a music to the ears of aid-sceptic taxpayers, but it’s a criticism which Hurd hopes to tackle head-on.
“Sustainability is always a challenge. We’re quite fortunate in terms of our ability to programme long-term in comparison with some of our partners. Where something has worked, we’re prepared to come back and do more so that we’re working on 10-year timeframes … if you’re in the business of change, particularly when tackling cultural issues [like corruption], you’ve got to be long term.”
Long-term thinking does not reduce the need for short-term responses. With Africa facing unprecedented dangers from the El Niño drought – which NGOs say could prompt famines on the scale of the 1980s – DfID’s ability to plan well into the future may be limited. For a country which, however reluctantly, has stuck to its aid promises and delivered £150m in the fight against El Niño thus far, there is palpable frustration with fellow donors.
“With problems in Syria and closer to home, the ability of the international community to support humanitarian appeals is very stretched, and you see some of our fellow donors having to move resources away from Africa. We’re concerned about that because the scale of the problem is huge, we’re concerned that El Niño could be followed by La Niña … we’d encourage our African partners to speak up.”
Keeping abreast of La Niña – a weather system which could wreak further havoc in a parched East Africa – is clearly concentrating minds at the department. Yet Hurd insists that DfID – and sceptical Brits – need to maintain a broad, long-term vision.
“If we fail in some of the problems we’re worrying about now, they are just tiny compared to what’s coming down the track.”