The Royal African Society – Written evidence (ZAF0002)





1.Reviewing the context of UK-Africa relations against the background of changes taking place in both Africa and the UK, this submission highlights the need to do more to:



2. The Royal African Society is the UK’s principal organisation promoting understanding and improved relations between the UK and Africa.  A membership organisation and charity under Royal Charter it has a total membership of just under 1,000 and a global audience through our events, online presence and digital media of over one million.

3. Good relations and mutual understanding between the peoples of Africa and the United Kingdom are at the heart of what the Royal African Society strives to achieve.  We are also committed to promoting the progress of Africa and to amplifying its voice in the world.  Drawing on the expertise and network that the Society maintains, we are therefore pleased to submit the following evidence for consideration by the Committee.

African context and trends

4. To develop a practical and effective British policy towards Africa it is important to have a proper understanding of what is happening on the continent.  There are four major trends that need to be taken into account.

5. Demography: Africa’s population doubled between 1900 and 1960, to 280 million, and will quadruple between 1960 and 2020 to over 1.2 billion.  This signals a major developmental success.  For a historically under-populated continent, life expectancy has improved dramatically and the working age population significantly expanded.  Though still predominantly rural, and with a large number of people still dependent on subsistence agriculture, urbanisation is growing fast.  The bulk of migration is within Africa rather than outside it.

6. Economy: the African economy continues to grow, though unevenly, faster in some countries than in others.  The number of people in absolute poverty has fallen.  African trade remains predominantly with the rest of the world rather than between African countries, though a great deal of intra-African trade is not measured by official statistics.  Agricultural productivity is rising, though slower than necessary to feed the growing population, and is under severe pressure in some areas from accelerated climate change – an issue of growing concern in many African countries  A number of financial and technical innovation hubs (Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa) demonstrate Africa’s capacity to find innovative solutions for its economic challenges.  Aid is becoming less important as a source of finance, vastly overshadowed by both remittances and private investment.

7. Democracy: the incidence of conflict on the continent is falling, and more countries are evolving stable, pluralist and accountable political systems.  Some areas of instability remain, both as a result of civil conflict and terrorist activity (the line between the two is sometimes hard to draw), in particular Mali, the Lake Chad basin, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Somalia.  Resource scarcity, especially of land, exacerbated by climate change in areas like the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, has sharpened conflict in several countries.  Some countries still suffer under repressive autocracies, and corruption remains a major constraint on growth and improved governance in many places.  But overall the regional communities and African Union have helped reduce the incidence of conflict and repression on the continent.

8. Society: social change is accelerating, particularly through the process of urbanisation.  The rise of Pentecostal Christianity as well as Islamic extremism reflects the dislocation of this rapid change.  But so too does the flourishing cultural scene in terms of music, art, literature and film.  These are areas where African creativity is a potential asset to the whole world.  Education in English, French and Portuguese, as well as growing access to the internet, gives Africans access to global learning and resources to use in their relations with each other and the rest of the world.

UK context

9. The UK has had - for better and worse - a long history of interaction with Africa.  The colonial past inevitably leaves a sometimes difficult and contested legacy; but it has also given rise to extensive interest in and knowledge and experience of Africa in the UK.  This is particularly so in three areas: 

(a) extensive academic and scientific research, especially into tropical agriculture, tropical hygiene and diseases, poverty reduction, and geographical, environmental, historical and anthropological research in the widest sense;

(b) business experience and engagement through UK-based companies such as Anglo-American, Unilever and Diageo that have been operating in Africa with African partners for many decades, though it has to be said that the number of these companies is at present declining rather than growing.

(c) the African diaspora in the UK, many with a close knowledge of and connections to their countries of origin on the continent, including financial links through business and remittances.

10. Long-standing contacts in these areas, as well as through British development assistance, gives rise to extensive person-to-person and cultural contacts. The primacy of the Premiership in international football has also generated wide African audiences for British football

11. With the UK going through a period of uncertainty over its future position in Europe and the world, African countries, like others, are waiting to see what kind of Britain emerges from this period of political turbulence – without prejudging the outcome.

British policies

12. Britain’s aid programmes in Africa have been significant, successful and appreciated.  DFID has acquired a reputation for efficiency and effectiveness, with well-targeted policies and programmes, and constructive partnerships with African governments.

13. Britain has also given significant help to some African countries (notably but not exclusively Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) in dealing with security threats, including those emanating from terrorist organisations.  The training, technical and intelligence support have made a significant difference to the countries concerned, and has been much appreciated

14. But British policy has been focussed heavily around the twin pillars of aid and security.  This has led to unbalanced relations.  Private sector business has received less systematic support and political engagement has lagged well behind material interests.  Finally the importance of people-to-people contacts has been under-appreciated and actually inhibited by government policy. 

15. Britain has also tended to rely on the Commonwealth link to sustain its engagement with Africa.  This brings many benefits, but is not a substitute for high level political contact with African governments on their own priorities, and has in the past led to the neglect of francophone countries.  Being a development superpower with Commonwealth tendencies will not compensate for being politically low profile or absent from much of the continent.

16. The recent Joint Communiqué on the African Union-United Kingdom Partnership, signed in February 2019 is an important step forward in building a joint and equal partnership in the priority areas identified – resilience, prosperity, gender, migration and a stable international system.




17. To help put these good intentions into practice, we therefore propose four areas where British Governments need to change their approach in order to improve bilateral and regional relations with African countries and increase the mutual benefit from the relationship:

(1) Political attention:  Africa has suffered political neglect from the UK.  British Prime Ministers have rarely visited the continent,  by comparison with leaders from the US, China, Japan, France, Germany, Turkey and India, nor even attended the regular EU-Africa Summits, which almost all other European leaders did.  Royal visits have great value, but are no substitute for political engagement.  Ministers for Africa have changed on a more or less annual basis, so none have been able to build a network of political contacts or become credible interlocutors for African leaders.  Policy on Africa has been seen as not much more than an extension of aid policy.  African leaders notice this.  It is not the partnership of equals they seek.  A visible and consistent change is needed, from the top, if the UK is to re-build its credibility on the continent.

(2) Driving prosperity: one of the priority areas identified by the AU-UK Joint Communiqué, it requires action in a number of areas.

     (a) Investment: Britain still has substantial investments in Africa, particularly in primary resources (BP, Shell, Tallow, Anglo-American) but it has been falling behind in relative terms as others (China, India, Turkey) have accelerated their own investments.  African leaders complain that British companies are no longer bidding for many of the big contracts.  Many companies are clearly distracted by Brexit uncertainties.  But given the potential for rapid growth in African markets, it is important to stimulate greater awareness of opportunities and more willingness to manage the risks of operating there.  Africa is an investment hungry continent, where good returns can still be secured.  CDC has an important role to play as a catalyst and repository of knowledge. But the government needs to make good on the former PM’s pledge to make Britain a more significant investor on the continent.  An area where the UK could have a competitive advantage is in sustainable investment that addresses the climate agenda.

      (b) Trade: in the era of Brexit, the continuity of trade with African countries is essential and we must secure it so as not to cause any disruption. Longer term, we need to ensure that any trade agreements we negotiate with African countries fully support rather than disrupt Africa’s regional integration plans under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Trade agreements should also allow more space for less developed countries to design and implement policies to develop their industries and cross- border supply chains - something seen by many African stakeholders as something to be improved on following experience with the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements. 

     (c) Entrepreneurship: the key to creating accelerated growth and increased jobs for young people in Africa is to unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the African people.  This exists, but is stifled by government regulation, protectionist practices, and lack of small scale finance.  More intelligent effort needs to be put into helping African governments create opportunities for young entrepreneurs, and putting in place financial and training support for them.  There are some good DFID and private sector programmes in place, but they need to be multiplied.

(3) Cultural and creative industries: this is one of the fastest growing areas of the African economy, and one where its global impact is beginning to be recognised.  It is an area where existing British links with Africa are strong, through the diaspora and through multiple creative exchanges.  The Government should be doing more to encourage these, through support to festivals, visiting creative, the activities of the British Council in cooperation with the private sector, as they will have knock on benefits to the African economies of origin.

(4) Connecting people: people-to-people contacts are a critical area of potential British influence, finance (through remittances and charity) and business with Africa.  Educational exchanges and cultural connections are also extremely important in ensuring good mutual understanding and warm relations, so it is welcome the invaluable work of the British Council and the number of Chevening scholarships have been maintained.   And yet all these potential connections are being impeded by Government policy on visas, where the rejection rate for African visitors is running at double the rate of that for any other region.  African visitors appear to be seen as a threat, not an asset. The recent report by the APPG for Africa on this issue highlighted the specific problems and costs to the UK, and proposed a number of remedies to reduce the level of uncertainty, irritation and even humiliation that the current system causes.  A truly global Britain cannot be open to goods but closed to people.  Remedying this problems will be a critical factor in the UK’s future relations with Africa. 

18.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of the desirable shifts in British policy.  But changes in these areas would significantly help to transform British relations with Africa in the years ahead.

Received 26 September 2019