On Monday, the uncomfortable sight of the Prime Minister dancing awkwardly with school children on her visit to Cape Town was shared on social media. While her moves elicited some light relief on a gloomy return from a Bank Holiday weekend, they masked the uncomfortable truths around the sentiment contained within her pledge to invest £4billion in African economies.
The announcement of course should be celebrated. The investment and focus on up-and-coming economies across the continent will hopefully provide a brighter future for many of my fellow African young people.
But my discomfort centres around the self-confessed “national self-interest” which could go some way towards explaining the timing of this significant investment.
Because Africa has for centuries been forgotten; its people used for the benefit of boosting economies and bolstering wealth in the global north. Meanwhile, the poor and the marginalised in African nations are those living with the daily realities of the devastating effects of climate change caused by the over-consumption and disregard for the planet that can be found in countries such as the UK. They are the ones suffering from the stark inequalities caused by a mix of historical legacy and modern-day injustices linked to trade, debt and tax dodging. For many years, donor countries have put our own priorities ahead of the needs of those that aid is supposed to benefit.
As Theresa May herself recognised in her speech this morning, most of the world’s poorest people are Africans, and are disproportionately women. The continent is home to the world’s most fragile states and a quarter of the world’s displaced people – many of whom have not necessarily had to cross a border.
While we might cautiously welcome the Prime Minister’s ambition to make the UK the G7’s number one investor in Africa by 2022, we must ask the question of how this investment will be managed and whether this turn towards African economies would have happened if it were not for the need for the UK’s planned departure from the EU next year.
Tomorrow, Theresa May will meet President Buhari of Nigeria – the nation of my birth – and on Thursday, she will visit Kenya; the first time a UK prime minister has done so in 30 years.
As an African woman, I hope that those meetings prove to be for the good of the continent I hold so dear.
I hope the investment meets key principles, including job creation, fighting devastating climate change and increased tax collection to pay for much-needed public services. However, we must be mindful that poorly designed trade policies, particularly ones that put public services in the hands of private firms, can undermine human rights and deepen existing inequalities. When African governments are encouraged to liberalise trade and reduce regulations it is African women working in the informal economy who will be hit first while trying to produce goods to compete with cheap imports; something they can’t do fairly when the decks are stacked against them.
When African governments are encouraged to cut trade tariffs and taxes, this minimises critical resources for key public services which women (more so than men) desperately rely on.
I hope that as the links between the UK and the beautiful, diverse, innovative and hopeful nations of Africa are strengthened through the promises made today, that we will no longer see its people as ‘less than’ – but instead as truly equal partners, worthy of inherent dignity, who can determine their own destinies, making clear to us what is in their best interests.
What Africa does not need is a new form of imperialism, with promises of help and investment, which do not benefit its own people, but instead bring about ‘wins’ for the UK.
What Africa needs from aid is help for its poorest and most marginalised; not a means by which the UK can solve its own self-made problems.
Because, Prime Minister, this is not about us.
Chine McDonald is head of media at Christian Aid and a writer/broadcaster on faith, race, gender and development