Theresa May’s dancing to the wrong tune on development

These latest announcements look like a modern-day scramble for Africa, Kate Osamor writes

British Prime Minister Theresa May danced with Kenyan scouts on Thursday (30 August) at the United Nations' Nairobi campus. (c) 2018 Thomson Reuters

In between her dance floor shenanigans on her Africa tour last week, the prime minister announced an equally shocking package of new deals with African nations worth some £300 million (USD$386 million).

With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looming, the prime minister clearly has her eyes set on the African continent for expanding new markets and securing investment opportunities for UK companies. This series of packages, which will be heavily funded by the UK’s aid budget, is shroud in benevolent rhetoric of lifting people out of poverty and helping countries transition away from aid.

But the truth is they will do nothing to address the widespread extreme poverty across the continent that leaves 42 per cent of the population living on less than $1.90 per day. Nor will these packages do anything to tackle obscene levels of global inequality that sees the richest 42 people owning more than half of the world’s population combined.

While thin on detail, these latest announcements look very much like a modern-day scramble for Africa. What other message can be gleaned from her being accompanied by an entourage of 29 business figures from UK industry while visiting the three biggest export markets in Africa, or her insistence that aid must be ‘unashamedly’ used in the UK’s national interest.

May’s plans to facilitate private companies in extracting even more wealth from people across Africa were made explicit in her speech in Cape Town on Tuesday, where she outlined plans to use the development budget to ‘support the private sector to take root and grow.’ The following day in Nairobi she went on to announce her vision for the UK’s future relationship with African nations to be ‘more and more about private investment, about doing business and making the most of commercial opportunities together.’

This imperialist mentality will do nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty or inequality. It is not enough to simply make the assumption that foreign investment will create jobs and therefore lead to economic growth and human development. This is based on an out-dated, and discredited, idea of ‘trickle down’ economics.

These latest announcements look very much like a modern-day scramble for Africa

We already know from a recent International Development Committee inquiry that the government’s economic development strategy places ‘insufficient focus on poverty reduction and on helping the very poorest and most vulnerable.’

And that is because their approach to international development does nothing to tackle the structural roots of poverty, or address the biggest challenges facing the continent. In particular, they need to address the rigged global economy and deeply unequal trading relationships that means billions of pounds that are generated from foreign investments are taken from poor countries every year. If they were genuine about ending poverty, they would clamp down on illicit financial flows, shut UK tax havens and put an end to global tax avoidance; all of which denies governments in the Global South of billions of pounds in revenue every year.  

The Tories have presided over a broken economic model which has seen poverty grow at home, and they are now planning to spend huge sums of public money to help export this very same model overseas. This is an outrageous misuse of the UK’s aid budget.

A Labour government would transform the UK’s aid programme to ensure that the public’s money is spent on genuine efforts to both alleviate poverty and tackle inequality. We would spend aid in solidarity with countries overseas to ensure that aid and investments work to benefit the many. We would increase investment in quality public services, clamp down on tax avoidance and ultimately work to build a fundamentally fairer world.

Kate Osamor is the Labour Party Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.