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Spread too thin? MPs urge Foreign Office to concentrate on key priorities in South America

9 September 2019

The UK Government must be more selective in how it prioritises diplomatic and programming work in South America with a view to mutual security, stability and prosperity say the Foreign Affairs Committee in its Report on Global Britain and South America.

The Report says security threats from the continent compromise stability in the region. Instability in Venezuela, widespread corruption and serious organised crime including the trafficking of illegal narcotics to the UK, present serious challenges for the FCO's resourcing on the continent.

The fires in the Amazon have given fresh impetus to FCO work; the protection of this region is crucial to protecting the shared global environment and is a matter of urgency for all, including the UK Government.

With embassies simultaneously pursuing multiple and diverse objectives, the FCO must be more selective in prioritising its activities in-country to prevent its resources being spread too thinly, says the Committee.

The Report highlights the UK's support to the Colombian peace process as an example of FCO successes at a diplomatic level and with practical measures on the ground. As penholder at the UN Security Council on Colombia, the UK should support and reinforce the fragile peace process through co-operation with like-minded partners including the EU. Continued financial support will also be essential to helping Colombia to cope with migrants and refugees fleeing neighbouring Venezuela. 

The growth of serious organised crime is being driven by instability in Venezuela, ultimately increasing the flow of illegal drugs to the UK. The Committee encourages the UK Government to use the mechanisms available, such as through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, to understand and anticipate the challenges involved.

In 2017, the UK exported £6.3 billion of goods and services to South America and imported £5.5bn – equal to around 1% of UK exports and imports and the lowest of any region in the world, according to the Office for National Statistics. Much can be done to transform opportunities for trade and investment in the future, says the Report.  This includes a role for the FCO to provide appropriate guidance to UK companies on compliance with the application of best practice in human rights.

The protection of this region is crucial for our shared global environment

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, said:

"The devastating fires in the Amazon basin remind us that South America is vital to all of us. The protection of this region is crucial to protecting our shared global environment.  We welcome the UK Government's work at bilateral and multilateral level to work with South American partners to tackle the causes and effects of climate change, and deforestation in particular.

South America may not always be at the top of the FCO's 'to-do' list but today, we say the Foreign Office needs to be clearer about its priorities in the region in order to achieve maximum impact with the resources available.

We cannot ignore the indirect security threats coming our way, such as the growth of the narcotics trade. We are concerned by ongoing violence against human rights defenders across the continent.

The UK can bring trade and investment, expertise and a willingness to work with like-minded partners on issues such as building long-lasting peace and tackling corruption. UK business in South America trails behind trade and investment by other countries and there is much work to do.

The FCO needs to rethink how it resources this important work. Ministerial oversight for the region falls within the large portfolio of the Minister for Europe and the Americas. On trade and investment, a single Trade Commissioner covers the entire Latin America and Caribbean region. In large Posts such as Bogota, staff work very hard to simultaneously pursue multiple and diverse objectives. We recommend that the FCO is more selective and strategic about identifying the policy areas which reflect local need and UK national interest and allocate resources accordingly."

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