Conspiracy theorists on the continent are having a field day calling this the sabotage of Africa’s success story; a deliberate attempt by the Western world to stop Africa from finally becoming its own master. Are they onto something? If we focus on the Department for International Development (DfID) in the UK, what can we say?
It claims to have reduced poverty considerably and to be wanting to engage in a new paradigm called “Beyond Aid”. Only time will tell if this new agenda is really a departure from the old ways. Or if it will actually be business as usual: top down projects which rarely impact communities meaningfully and create a culture of dependency which we should be concerned about, especially for those of us who see in free enterprise as the only way to prosperity. Meanwhile, African leaders such as Tony Elumelu, Aliko Dangote, Akon and many others in the field of political thinking, business, arts, etc are inspiring their counterparts to dare to seize the opportunities which have always been available on the continent.
“This July, the world’s foremost thought leaders, business development experts and emerging and established entrepreneurs and innovators will meet for the sixth annual global entrepreneurship summit…and it is only fitting that this year’s summit is hosted by a country that epitomises the transformational power of possibility, where the vibrancy of the economy is only matched by the verve of the youth”.
This is an extract from a speech delivered in a moving video by the current President of Kenya, Kenyatta. It echoes the views that he shared around foreign aid before the latest African Union summit, which are also amplified by the political and business intelligentsia across the continent. They want to put an end to a system which has kept Africa in a permanent state of misery. They have embarked on a rebranding of the continent, and this is largely supported by African citizens. They are gradually unshackling themselves and realising what sitting in the driving seat for the transformation of Africa could mean for them.
It does not help that the media continuously bombards us with images of chaos, desperation, disease, war and corruption in Africa. This is not the whole story: African economies are growing faster than those of the developed world. The returns on investments are higher than in any other region of the world. The African market with its growing middle class is a formidable opportunity to foster mutually beneficial trade deals, not just for big corporations, but also for small and medium sized companies in Britain and in Africa. Africans are not all desperate for a life in the Western world, as large numbers of them who came to the West to study or work, or to flee war zones; are returning to build their homelands.
If development agencies like DfID want to claim the credit for some of the massive and wonderful changes in Africa, they need to completely change how they approach it. Not just in rhetoric, but also in action. These are the avenues that they might want to consider:
1) A new Department for International Cooperation & Trade
It is paradoxical that the fastest growing region in the world is still envisaged as weak, vulnerable, and incapable of self-determination. This could be the only rational explanation for the persistence in labelling programs ‘developmental’, when they should actually be aimed at facilitating cooperation and trade in a win-win process.
Perhaps DfID, which persistently claims to be world leading and ground breaking, could lead the way in removing the D in its acronym and replacing it with a C and T; thus becoming the Department for International Cooperation & Trade. This would be more in line with its real aim, or what should be its real aim, to foster a good climate for British business abroad. It would also appease British taxpayers who are questioning the ring fencing of the DFID’s budget at a time of reduced spending across the board. By understanding that the investment in DFID is aimed at fostering trade and cooperation with tomorrow’s big economic powerhouses, the general public might show less reluctance. The newly DfICT would therefore be refocusing on technology transfers and facilitation of entrepreneurship, and entrench Britain’s reputation as a soft power. This would lead the way in the world’s narrative around Africa and might encourage many Africans in looking at their continent as a land of wealth creation, instead of a land of poverty reduction.
This would be more in line with the aspirations of African people living on the continent and in the diaspora. They are gradually standing against the negative and dependent portrayal of their continent as can be seen with the #someonetellcnn or #theafricatheynevershow hashtags on twitter. They are increasingly looking favourably at partners such as China, which adopts a less condescending approach and is seen to be working at partnership building. This is not to say that the Chinese involvement in Africa is not without problems, but its approach has proven more empowering for Africans who see China as a benign power which does not interfere in their domestic affairs, and which only has an economic agenda – not a civilizational one.
2) An EU that leads on free trade
Across Europe, there is a growing discontent with the workings of the EU, and nowhere more so than in Britain, where the case for Brexit is being articulated in a very convincing manner. The central tenet of this argument is that Britain needs to reclaim its economic and political sovereignty, lost in the red tape and protectionist practices of the EU.
Those practices such as the Common Agricultural Policy have harmed Africa far more than any war or disease that the continent has experienced. The EU has erected barriers which have stopped African farmers from competing on the European market, imposing on them the farming of crops such as cocoa, coffee and cotton which are less profitable and mainly serve the Western market – which transforms them and exports them back in Africa. These barriers to trade and industrial progress have helped to keep Africans poor, and they were being implemented by so called aid programs.
Fortunately, this economic model is now being challenged and a manufacturing industry is emerging, trading across and beyond the continent to overcome the challenges posed by food insecurity, climate change and migration movements, and fuelling the growth of an African middle class.
If the EU is serious about tackling poverty in Africa, it should get rid of the Common Agricultural Policy and follow free market principles in all its dealings with the continent. Britain and the new DfICT could be at the forefront of this rebalancing of the trading partnerships between Africa and the EU.
3) Tackling tax evasion
At a recent event in London hosted by the BBC called “Has Africa outgrown foreign aid?”, Ben Philips, the Head of Research and Policy at Action Aid, exposed the behaviour of Western corporations across the continent which have been evading their tax responsibilities – relying on tax havens and depriving African countries of the money that they need to implement their own developmental goals.
Mr Philips was relaying what is now being gradually reported in the mainstream press: for all their generosity and pledges to ‘make poverty history’ by committing to aid budgets, Western governments have been silent on these tax avoidance practices which seriously harm the poor and undermine a country’s sovereignty.
It is easy to blame this situation on corrupt leaders, but in this debate we often forget about the corruptors or the facilitators. DfID’s budget might be better spent focusing on the British corporations which are contributing to the life of poverty and hopelessness many African citizens continue to suffer. They inflict a double pain by occupying markets Africans might have wanted to invest in, and by escaping their tax duties. This is not to advocate higher taxes in Africa, as this would be another barrier to the proliferation of entrepreneurship across the continent.
I am merely arguing that corporations which are making impressive returns on their investments in Africa should be conducting themselves responsibly. David Cameron’s speech on his recent trip in South East Asia seems to suggest that London at least is soon to become less attractive to those corporate practices. This is very encouraging and should be met with praise, as ultimately, it is more conducive of a better environment for business practice all over the world.
Trading with Africa as equals
In the midst of all this, there is incredible hope for Africans and the rest of the world. They are gradually challenging the status quo. They are reinventing themselves in a way that validates the theories of true liberalism and its ability to create meaningful social progress.
This is an opportunity for the West to move away from what the brilliant Giles Bolton, former DfID director, calls “the colonial hangover” and finally engage meaningfully with Africa to guarantee a more prosperous world. DfID needs to believe that just as Britain owes its success to its many entrepreneurs who have continuously made this nation a great one; so will Africa. The government’s stance for state reduction and society’s empowerment at home needs to drive DfID’s mission everywhere. It should act as a crowdfunder; a venture capitalist in the business plan that every African country will design for itself.
Global poverty has already fallen, and will continue to fall dramatically. For Britain to continue to be seen as an agent of this change; it desperately needs to exercise the liberal principles it is respected for the world over by TRADING with Africa as EQUALS.