Why Britain Can’t Afford to Fall Behind in Africa

Britain’s relationship with Africa matters. The world’s oldest continent, today Africa is also its youngest, with 60% of its population under the age of 25. Its huge potential for growth is underscored by the fact that Africa is currently home to a staggering 8 of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world. With its population set to double by 2050, investing in the economic power of this young population will be absolutely key to the success of Global Britain.

This is why I’m pleased to see the Government starting to lean into our partnership with Africa. This month they are holding the third African Investment Summit  to help British investors and African governments forge closer ties. But is it enough and is it too late?

As a trading nation, our success depends on global markets. Working in the private sectors, I’ve seen the hugely integral role investing in international development and emerging economies plays in successful business. Gone are the days when international development was regarded as a charitable wing that sat firmly in the Corporate Social Responsibility Team. From H&M and Deloitte to HSBC and IKEA, successful global businesses know that as a trading nation our destiny is intertwined with that of our international partners. And among our international partners, I firmly believe that Africa is key.

A strong African economy and healthy workforce is good news for British people and businesses as well as Africans. However, realistically we cannot rely on trade alone. Africa is still the poorest continent in the world and increasing wealth has also brought rising inequality. For example, Nigeria’s GDP is booming and many individuals are enjoying the fruits of the growing economy. Yet 87 million Nigerians still live on less than £1.90 a day.

This is why trade and aid must go hand in hand to truly harness the phenomenal potential of this young population. British business leaders like Dominic McVey, who runs businesses across Africa, cite UK aid as playing a critical role in opening up markets to them in regions that UK exporters would have previously struggled to reach, adding “I firmly believe that most businesses in the UK that have been able to invest in the Global South have been able to do so because of the development expertise provided by British aid workers and supported by successive Governments.”

It is true that we invest in aid because it is morally the right thing to do. However it is not merely a gesture of altruism – a healthy, thriving economy and workforce across Africa is plainly in our interest shown through the work of British entrepreneurs like Dominic. It is through investing in economic growth and job creation that we can help to make our development partners of today our trading partners of tomorrow. Take South Korea, a former aid recipient that last year traded £7.2bn worth of goods and services with the UK, making them one of our top trading partners in East Asia. Of course this is due to a range of factors not solely aid, but this example clearly shows why aid and trade are two sides of the same coin, mutually reinforcing one another for everyone’s benefit.

But is the UK arriving late to the party? China has been investing huge sums into Africa since 1977. They saw the huge potential in the continent and have gone at it with a vengeance, gaining a foothold in the region (and building up significant debt) over the past four decades. Britain rightly does development very differently from China, however there is no getting away from the fact that we have a long way to go to strengthen our partnership with the continent. After all Theresa May was the only British Prime Minister to visit Kenya – a key British partner – in over 30 years and Johnson has not visited the continent once while in No10. Meanwhile the decision to  break a manifesto commitment and slash the aid budget has hit countries across Africa the hardest. Aid to Kenya, identified as a key development and security partner to the UK, has been cut by 39% while aid to Nigeria, also identified as an important partner in the Integrated Review, has been cut by 55%.

We urgently need to reset our relationship with Africa. The private sector stood up long ago and realised the importance of the continent to global affairs and trade. The Government cannot afford to fall behind as other countries, including hostile states, will be only too keen to step up and fill our void.

Libby Smith

Executive, Labour Campaign for International Development

Director of Advocacy, Coalition for Global Prosperity

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