UK-Africa Investment Summit: A chance for a fresh start

This Monday (20th Jan 2020) the UK-Africa Investment Summit (AIS) will take place in London. The Summit is a high profile initiative by the UK government to reset UK-Africa relations as part of a wider rebirth of UK international relations, in the wake of Brexit and the limitations of our current model.

Clearly there are a range of different interpretations of this narrative and its drivers, but the AIS is undeniably an opportunity to deepen the UK's relationships with Africa beyond post-colonial guilt and to adopt a more genuine partnership approach. To me that means shared endeavour involving trust, humility and willingness to listen. A willingness to admit when we are wrong and take action to be better. An ability to identify problems together and co-create solutions.

So what are we resetting? The current UK-Africa relationship is dominated by DFID, its development narrative and the ODA that it (largely) controls. A reset implies a change in that - I see 2 aspects that need addressing.

  1. A clearer and more explicit articulation of what we mean by 'development'. The UK's aid strategy actually does a very good job of setting that out - but has not yet been digested and integrated into practice.

  2. Tackle fears head on - development is not inherently incompatible with UK trade interests nor climate change ambitions. DFID-DIT-BEIS are not in conflict, they should help surface and resolve creative tension behind a coherent Whole-of-Gov approach.

Within this is an inherent tribal approach to development. The left see development as aid, for poverty. The right see development as macroeconomic trickle down, private sector. This is a crude characterisation and a false dichotomy. Old arguments and debates that miss the point. These things are compatible and represent different things. No country in the world has eliminated poverty without growing its economy - obvious when you think about it, growth creates jobs, which allows people to build their own asset base and grow. Of course this needs the 'right' sort of growth that creates the 'right' sort of jobs. National GDP is a crude aggregate measure that doesn't address these issues. However, it's equally undeniable that there are still billions in poverty right now. They can't wait and we have a moral responsibility to help meet their immediate needs.

The reality is that the diverse UK interests of DFID, DIT, MOD and BEIS are interconnected. We need to embrace the complexity and realities of the modern world. There is nothing wrong or shameful about UK trade interests - and they are not incompatible with development goals. After all UK trade promotion is about creating jobs and export driven growth in the UK - exactly the same things that many African countries are also targeting.

Development hacks are hung up on the tied aid of the past where aid was used to bully other countries. Partnership means finding a more honest, mature and authentic approach - Japan and China have mastered this in Africa, as partners, not former masters. Trade interests and development can go hand in hand - but it requires a partnership approach to find mutual interest, not projecting a false altruism and denying opportunities to benefit, nor Machiavellian tricks to pull one over the other side.

Similarly on defence and security - modern defence policy is about moving upstream to prevent conflict in the first place and achieve national security through global stability. Growth and job creation help to reduce migration and stable economies reduce conflict risk. Prosperity for all reduces the hooks for destabilising forces of extreme or nationalist movements. And, doing good things in an authentic way can only be good for the UK's global standing and perception.

As for climate change mitigation - we've reached a tipping point in public consciousness, where we know that we HAVE to bring down global emissions. That will require concerted effort across all countries. Whilst the focus is on the UNFCCC negotiations and the Paris Agreement (another blog about that forthcoming...), the reality is that international agreements are outcomes, not drivers of climate action.

For too long African countries have been painted solely as the victims of climate change - which they are - but they are not without agency. With their limited infrastructure and untapped growth potential, African economies represent an enormously fertile ground to grow solutions and new economic models rather than making the mistakes of the West, or even copying the Asian Tigers. An African green growth revolution could create jobs and grow inclusive economies - in a way that doesn't plunder the earth. Africa can leapfrog old technologies and approaches and jump to innovative, modern solutions - mobile technology is the obvious example of this. But why not transport, energy and water too?

Clearly these are complex issues - which means that there are trade-offs and synergies. In this environment, policy making in the UK and in Africa needs to be top-notch to navigate unintended consequences and make the most of linking things - but without getting lost in 'over-integration'.

Fortunately, the UK has a great product to export to the world - it has the best civil service in the world.

It has the BEST civil service in the world.

We all love to hate civil servants (my favourite is a comparison to the British SA-80 rifle which was plagued by problems when it was first commissioned - what do civil servants and the SA-80 have in common? They don't work and you can't fire them...). But I will be the first to stand up and defend them.

The British civil service has a rock solid public service ethic - it attracts the best and brightest, who could earn substantially more elsewhere, but choose to serve the UK.

The civil service prides itself on impartiality. There is a clear and established set of principles, that civil servants serve the government of the day by providing robust analysis and policy advice. It is up to ministers to make the decisions, the civil service's job is to make sure that the options are properly analysed - and to implement the decisions that are made, regardless of whether they agree personally.

Great emphasis is placed on data and evidence, but at the same time, the civil service is not naively data-driven nor bound by a lack of data. It pursues data-informed policy making and is world reknown for quality analysis that takes a balanced and rational approach.

To do this requires excellent judgement - making decisions and drawing conclusions based on imperfect or incomplete data - but flagging the risks and unknowns. Honest analysis of imperfect situations.

This is something that the UK has not yet made the most of in its development activities. DFID advisors and development 'experts' are diverse, but I have come across very few that actually have experience of policy, public service delivery or regulation in their home country.

Of course, the contexts are different - and there are also UK 'sector experts' who think they can fix everything by blindly applying the same models. However, the skillsets of a good civil servant are the same and if applied in the right way can help ministers elsewhere to grapple with complex issues.

The AIS is just a moment, albeit a big one - but more significantly, it marks the start of a great opportunity for a strategic alignment of UK policy for a more sophisticated relationship with Africa.

We, the development community need to avoid the impulse to be gatekeepers and pourers of scorn - we need to embrace our fears - but recognise that these are unfounded. There is a way of integrating diverse UK policy objectives - and we need to rise to the challenge in acknowledging this complexity.

The UK's substantial policy making capacity will be key to navigating this complexity - and is just one of the things that the UK still has to share with the world.

But a genuine reset needs a change in tack, a pivot away from arrogance and hubris - and a pivot towards humility, pragmatism and creativity. Fortunately 3 things that the British people are known for.