Some 15 African heads of state are expected in London on Monday to attend the inaugural UK-Africa Investment Summit. This is not a bad tally for an event so close on the heels of an election in which Britain’s post-Brexit future was momentarily up in the air. But it is a far cry from the nearly 50 who flocked to the 2018 China-Africa summit where President Xi Jinping dispensed $60bn in investment pledges.
Summitry is not everything. The UK cannot match China’s firepower, even if not all Mr Xi’s largesse came to fruition. Still, the disparity provides a measure of how far Britain has lagged. That became painfully clear in 2018 when former prime minister Theresa May went on a three-nation tour of Africa in an effort to reset the commercial relationship. Shockingly, it was the first visit by a British prime minister in five years and the first to Kenya, a former colony, in three decades. Contrast that with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who has visited 16 African countries since 2017 in an effort to revamp France’s relations with the continent.
Almost imperceptibly, attitudes towards Africa have been changing. Led by China, countries such as Turkey, India and Brazil see Africa less as a failing continent and more as a commercial opportunity. That view is subject to many caveats. But it is more in tune with how African countries want to interact with the world. Britain has been blindsided by a colonial legacy that leads it to view Africa too much through the prism of poverty and insecurity.
Of course, much of Africa remains desperately poor — as was China 30 years ago. But some African countries have turned a corner. Six out of 15 of the world’s fastest growing economies are African, albeit from a low base. Huge strides have been made in reducing child mortality and increasing life expectancy. British development assistance, underpinned by its commitment to provide 0.7 per cent of national income in aid, has played an important role. In this, the Department for International Development has done much good. It is right to demand accountability. But this cause is better served by keeping DfID separate, not folding it into the Foreign Office as has been proposed.
That said, there is genuine interest about how Britain intends to sharpen its commercial offering. Britain still has a lot going for it. The London Stock Exchange remains a compelling venue for African companies. British banks have a long history in Africa, though they need to be vigilant against being a conduit for illicit finance. The revamped CDC, the UK’s development finance institution, focuses on the poorest countries. It is right to funnel money through a body that invests for a return in African businesses that are creating jobs. More can be done too to extend finance to British businesses investing in Africa, particularly smaller ones that manufacture products or supply services on the continent.
Britain’s change of emphasis is broadly welcome. In 20 years’ time, more than one in four of the world’s people will be African. The best way of serving Britain’s — as well as Africa’s — interests is to ensure a healthy trade and investment relationship that helps African economies thrive.
Still, in this post-Brexit era, a sense of realism is in order. Between them, Africa’s 54 countries have a combined output less than Germany’s and about the same as France’s. Investing in Africa is an investment in the future. But however much Britain steps up to the plate, Africa is not going to secure the UK’s economic future just yet.