UK still has no coherent strategy for engaging with Africa – Lords International Relations and Defence Committee

The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee has today slammed the lack of a coherent UK strategy to its engagement with Africa saying the  ‘strategic approach’ launched in 2018 does not live up to its name, and is just a collection of broad ideas with little clarity on how to put them into action.

The Committee calls on the UK Government to develop a new approach to the countries of Africa and regional institutions such as the African Union, based on ‘genuine partnership’, including supporting reform of UN Security Council to give African nations a voice “commensurate with their size and importance”.

UK visa policy “arbitrary, expensive, time-consuming and humiliating”

The report finds that UK visa policy, as well as the ‘hostile environment’ and Windrush scandal, have damaged the UK’s reputation in Sub-Saharan Africa and are making it harder to build strong relationships in the region. In some cases, visa policies “fall below the standards of basic human decency”.  The Committee calls on the Home Office to urgently review how visa policy is operating for people from Africa who wish to come to the UK, and says the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Trade should participate in the review to ensure diplomatic and trade and investment priorities are properly considered.

Unfairness in UK visa policy, the UK’s colonial legacy and the ongoing issue of structural racism in the UK are a difficult backdrop to the UK’s engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa, which the Committee says the UK Government must address. The lack of a coherent UK strategy for engaging with the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa risks the UK failing to develop deeper relationships in a region of strategic and geopolitical importance to the UK, in which countries such as China are already active.

Committee urges lower remittance costs

The Committee finds that in 2018 money sent to Sub-Saharan Africa from diaspora communities globally was three times higher than the combined official development assistance they received. In the region of £6bn was sent from the UK in remittances, providing essential economic support and encouraging entrepreneurship. The report identifies remittances as an important part of the economic relationship between the UK and the region, and urges fuller engagement with the diaspora by UK policymakers.  

However the Committee finds a lack of competition in the money transfer market means people sending money to African countries often face exorbitant fees.  Average fees for sending money to Sub-Saharan Africa from the UK were as high as 9.4% in 2018, above the global average of 7% and well above the Sustainable Development Goals target rate of 3%. The report says the Government should use its power over competition policy after the EU transition period ends to support greater competition in the market to drive down charges. This will be particularly important as the economic fall-out from COVID-19 is likely to reduce the amount of money sent to Africa in remittances.

Trade with the region has ‘flatlined’

The report says that Sub-Saharan Africa has many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but  UK trade and investment in the region has “flatlined”. A concerted strategic effort from the UK to reinvigorate its trade links with countries in the region and a plan to build on the on the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January are urgently required.

The Committee identify an opportunity for the UK in developing its  own trade policy post-Brexit to also explore ways of giving better access to Africa’s agricultural exports to the UK market.

The Committee also express regret over the Government’s decision to merge the well-regarded Department for International Development into the FCO and says the Government should provide urgent assurances that it will continue to spend UK aid in line with the definition of official development assistance agreed by the OECD, for the promotion of the economic development and the welfare of developing countries.

Commenting, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, Chair of the Committee, said:

“Despite a significant fanfare when it was launched in 2018 the Government’s ‘new strategic approach’ to  Africa has failed to live up to its name. It is time to press the reset button, and use the timing of the UK’s exit from the EU and the Integrated Review of foreign, defence, security and international development policy to develop an action plan for a new relationship based on genuine partnership.

“There are concrete steps the UK can take now to deliver that including supporting initiatives to improve African representation at the UN and in other international organisations, tackling unfair charges on money African diaspora communities in the UK send back to the continent, and using our exit from the EU to open up our domestic market to a new fairer trade relationship with African countries.

“We heard worrying evidence that the UK’s reputation in Sub-Saharan Africa has taken a real hit as a result of unfair visa policies and the ‘hostile environment’. We have a lot to do to overcome that damage and develop the kind of future relationship that is in the interests of both the UK and the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

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