By Arkebe Oqubay
ADDIS ABABA – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to merge the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a deliberate slap in the face to developing countries. Worse, it comes just when African countries are crying out for international support to fight COVID-19 and its economic fallout.
Johnson has made clear that his post-Brexit vision of a “swashbuckling” UK leaves scant room for commitments to Africa or the wider developing world. DfID’s absorption into the bowels of the country’s diplomatic apparatus represents a reversal of the United Kingdom’s landmark 1997 policy shift vis-à-vis Africa, “Eliminating World Poverty – A Challenge for the 21st Century.” By putting the agency directly under the control of the foreign ministry, Johnson is signaling that international development will play second fiddle to foreign policy and security concerns.
It’s an odd decision, considering that an economically prosperous Africa, with its young and growing population, is precisely the kind of trade partner that Johnson needs to make his idea of a “Global Britain” anything other than a fantasy. Instead of recognizing Africa’s potential, he seems to see abandoning the continent as a means of cutting costs and paying lip service to national security. In a recent statement, Johnson argued that:
“DfID outspends the Foreign Office more than four times over and yet no single decision-maker in either department is able to unite our efforts or take a comprehensive overview. We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”
Beyond these geopolitical arguments, Johnson is also justifying the merger in the name of “getting maximum value for the British taxpayer.” Expressing fears of “an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently,” he has decided that foreign aid will now be “overseen by the National Security council.”
Few people in Africa will be surprised at Johnson’s actions. After all, during his career he has often demonstrated contempt for Africa and Africans. He has spoken of Africans’ “watermelon smiles” and of “flag-waving piccaninnies” greeting Queen Elizabeth. But even worse than these nakedly racist comments is his 2002 article in the Spectator (which he was editing at the time, even as a member of Parliament) in which he said of Africa: “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”
Johnson claims that he is merely following the examples set by New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. But those countries’ historical ties to Africa are miniscule, and they have never played more than a marginal role in the continent’s development. A better comparison would be to Germany’s Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, which has played a critical role in Africa since its founding in 1993 and is ramping up its investment there.
By curtailing the UK’s efforts, Johnson is undermining his own economic growth agenda, as well as limiting the scope for collaboration on sustainable development goals. His recent statements are contradicted by independent studies touting DfID’s excellent results-oriented culture and exemplary performance over the last two decades. Even if Johnson’s decision turns out to be reversible, it is past time that British policymakers end the hypocrisy they have shown toward Africa – touting the continent as a partner while permitting visa discrimination against African visitors to the UK (to cite one recent example).
I have had the privilege of witnessing the remarkable progress that can be made through genuine partnerships with DfID, which resulted in significant contributions to Ethiopia’s development goals. Between 1997 and 2016, the agency was a key catalyst for Ethiopia’s development, and the country benefited from the leadership of both Labour and Conservative governments under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron. The fact that all three have jointly condemned Johnson’s decision tells us all we need to know about its wisdom.
In addition to supporting poverty reduction and United Nations development goals, DfID assistance has also lent momentum to industrialization and reform in Africa. Again, Ethiopia is a case in point. Having benefited from DFID’s efforts to reduce poverty and create the conditions for economic transformation, it is now the world’s fastest-growing economy.
DfID has shown that development assistance is more effective when it is aligned with recipient countries’ own development plans. Such arrangements also offer insulation against political or diplomatic contingencies that threaten to derail development. DfID’s partnerships in Africa have succeeded precisely because they are based on mutual interest, putting the recipient country in the driver’s seat.
Developed countries’ international development policies should be guided by two overarching principles. First, assistance must serve developing countries’ own long-term interests. Fortunately, in addition to fostering growth, institutional arrangements that promote collaboration and coordination with recipient countries will ensure the best value for taxpayers in source countries.
Second, development partnerships should not be used as mere instruments of geopolitical strategy. That is why it is important to have an independent institution to oversee development assistance; otherwise, there will always be some potential for undue political pressure.
A post-Brexit UK has many critical choices to make. Will it strengthen economic cooperation with Africa, acting as a genuine partner to a nearby continent with which it has strong historical ties (even if these are painful for the continent)? Or will it abandon the exemplary connections with developing countries it has built since 1997 and play only a peripheral role? In a world of rising economic powers such as China, it is in the interests of both the UK and Africa to maintain – and deepen – existing partnerships.
Oqubay is a senior minister and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He is co-author, most recently, of African Economic Development: Evidence, Theory, Policy (Oxford University Press, 2020).