Having been, understandably, preoccupied in my columns last month with the Mali crisis, I must now switch to a more up-beat mode. It is a perennial wonder to me that the African continent should be continuing to get such good notices. One uses the term ‘African continent’ because, as the Mali crisis has sharply demonstrated, one cannot divorce North Africa from the rest of the continent – the Sahara is not quite as much of a barrier as it has sometimes seemed in the past. But geo-politically there is still a vast acreage of division between the turbulence of the Arab spring and what has been going on in the rest of the continent.
These thoughts came to me with force on listening to Britain’s new Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds, the replacement of the indefatigable traveller Henry Bellingham who took a well-earned rest in last November’s reshuffle after sixty-one visits to African countries in two-and-a-half years. Like Bellingham, who before entering parliament was a barrister specialising in inward investment, Simmonds, a chartered surveyor, comes to the job with no previous experience of Africa, but showing the same willingness to learn, and bidding fair to end up with a similar track record. He also is putting across the same Cameronesque discourse on trade, trade and more trade.
The meeting at which Simmonds was speaking was a massively well-attended meeting of the Business Council for Africa (UK) at the offices in lawyers Stephenson Harwood. His title was bland enough: “Opportunity and Engagement: the British Government in Sub-Saharan Africa”. But what showed that he was a fast learner was the way in which he plunged straightaway into saying, more or less, that it is virtually impossible to speak of Africa as a whole unit. There are a multitude of Africas, some working well, some not so well, some on the slide, some failed, some surprisingly improving. But “it is not a homogenous continent, nor is it a country” – a misleading impression often encouraged by the media. There are, it is true, problem countries such as Mali or Somalia, but he drew attention to an already much-promoted figure that in the past decade six out of ten of the fastest growing countries were in Africa and the IMF predicts this number will grow to seven in the next five years.
The second point he made which is well worth dwelling on is the need for security in Africa as a “precursor for development”. I had wondered whether to ask how this fitted in with the British government’s present cut-backs in defence spending. An answer was in fact given by David Cameron in his statement that some of the budget of the Department for International Development (DFID) might have to be reallocated to security expenditure because it was a part of what was needed for development (although not for “combat operations”). Although this has produced some reactions of concern from organisations such as Oxfam, it is not in fact a new thesis.
Most importantly, it has been practiced by the European Union (EU) for the past few years, in the allocation of expenditure from the European Development Fund. This has gone not only to reinforcing the security institutions of the African Union (AU), but into logistical support for exercises such as the hybrid AU/UN operation in Darfur and the African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM). Thus indirectly the British government has already been blending security and development. Indeed, the EU took the template for this approach to development from the prioritising of security in the main programme of the 2002 New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) now run as an organ of the AU, although its significant years came before 2005.
Interestingly, it is said that David Cameron also plans to make the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June the main base from which to launch a discussion on the run-up to the Millennium Development Goals (the famous MDGs which concentrate on global poverty alleviation) which reach their target date in 2015. It would have been weightier for the British Prime Minister if he had been able to use the G20 (a more balanced and relevant international grouping than the G8 which for some has passed its well-by date), but as a good public relations operative Cameron knows that one has to make use of the best material available, and a summit of even part of the ‘haves’ can provide such a platform.
His overall commitment to maintaining a ring-fence around development (a policy approved by his coalition partners) has been often perceived as one of his saving graces. That has helped the Conservatives to shed their image of the “nasty party”. So any suggestion that in fact he is side-tracking development money into defence, however cunning the sleight-of-hand, could damage that position, and however innocuous it may prove in the end. But then, politics is a funny old business (to somewhat paraphrase Mrs Thatcher at her moment of resignation back in 1990).