Much has changed for the better since 2005, when then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa set out a powerful case that it is in “our common interest” to tackle the “poverty and stagnation [that] is the greatest tragedy of our time”.
In the intervening years, economic development and investment in essential public services have lifted millions out of extreme poverty. More funding for women’s health has allowed many millions more pregnant women to access basic healthcare, causing maternal deaths to drop substantially. Similar improvements have been seen in areas as diverse as treatments for disease and the peaceful transition between governments.
But the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Ebola crisis before it, have shown how fragile these steps forward can be — and how quickly decades of progress could reverse.
Despite all the rhetoric of “Global Britain,” post-Brexit trade deals and the championing of our historic links with the Commonwealth, Africa is benefiting little from its relationship with the UK these days. Since the funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2013, there has been just one visit by a UK prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa: A perfunctory three-day trip by Theresa May in 2018.
Now in Boris Johnson, we have a prime minister who previously played down slavery and recommended a new colonialism, writing in 2002 that: “The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”
“The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,” he wrote. “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”
It was a bleak, cynical, patronising and narcissistic set of comments. Truly Johnsonian. Deeply problematic and wrong on every level.
Johnson may have visited many African countries as foreign secretary, but in his new guise as the post-Brexit, little-Britain prime minister — and despite all the rhetoric of the recent Africa Investment Summit — his actions belie his rhetoric.
In recent weeks, he abolished the world-leading Department for International Development in the middle of a pandemic and suggested slashing support for friends and Commonwealth partners such as Zambia and Tanzania.
Huge challenges remain for people living in sub-Saharan Africa.
As the Brookings Institute and World Data Lab pointed out, in 2019 one in three Africans — 422 million people, representing more than 70% of the world’s poorest people — still lived below the global poverty line.
It is clear that massive efforts are needed both by African governments and the global community — whether that comes in the form of aid, investment, debt relief, or by ensuring trade protects and supports development gains.
The primary impacts of Covid-19 are as yet unclear. A deeply worrying increase in cases in South Africa in recent weeks, coupled with what is believed to be massive underreporting across the continent, remains hugely concerning. Ensuring global equity in any vaccine distribution must be a priority. We must learn from the terrible consequences of the HIV pandemic that saw millions in Africa die — and continue to die — from HIV/Aids despite life-saving treatments being available elsewhere in the world. Millions still lose their lives to diseases like malaria, for want of an insecticide-treated bed net.
Whatever the direct impacts of Covid-19, the pandemic’s secondary effects may be even worse. African economies cannot afford to bail out businesses or furlough millions of workers. The African Union projects 20 million jobs will be at risk. Others predict this number will be even higher. Health workers and scientists across sub-Saharan Africa have warned privately in recent weeks that the secondary health impact may yet eclipse deaths from Covid-19.
Amid this hugely conflicted set of successes and challenges, where is the true commitment to progressive partnership with Africans from Britain?
We cannot afford to continue the inconsistencies in policy that allow some British corporations and others to not pay their full dues to Africa and its people or continue to fund security and justice programmes that do not result in substantial improvements in human rights — or worse still, act complicit in their abuses by unreformed regimes. Nor can we allow the otherwise important work of bodies like the Commonwealth Development Corporation to be undermined by investments in fossil fuels in places like Mozambique.
It’s time to reset our relationship with Africa so that it is based on clear values, with human rights at the heart — be those economic, civil or environmental.
A new British partnership with the people and countries of the African continent — based on relationships of respectful equals on the world stage, alongside a frank and honest appraisal of our colonial past — could deliver real progress for millions still living in poverty, often without access to healthcare or education. It could also help build the foundations for new diplomatic, security and trading partnerships of equals working together to tackle climate change and disease.
But to do so, we must be a trusted, respectful and passionate partner for progress, human rights and human development. That would be, after all, in our common interest. Daily Marverick
Stephen Doughty is the Labour Party’s shadow Africa minister.