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Tony Blair is wrong. Africa won't be the answer to Britain's post-Brexit problems

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/01/2020 Peter Beaumont
a group of people walking on a bridge: New infrastructure alongside a slum area in Addis Ababa, capital of debt-laden Ethiopia. © Photothek/Getty Images New infrastructure alongside a slum area in Addis Ababa, capital of debt-laden Ethiopia.

Tony Blair’s cheerleading for the UK-Africa investment summit is of a piece with much of the former prime minister’s recent career. Trading in grand-sounding ideas, often very short on detail, he brings the pitch of an evangelist crossed with a lobbyist to the world’s biggest problems.

Blair’s latest piece of rhetorical woo-woo unites (and promises to address) a series of disparate preoccupations: eradicating poverty and encouraging good governance in Africa while solving the issue of Britain’s trading relationships post-Brexit. All seasoned with just a hint of post-colonial hubris.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is, with Blair’s pitch tacking too close for comfort to the kind of foreign trade-not-aid agenda long embraced by Boris Johnson – host of the conference – who has suggested that UK aid should “do more to serve the political and commercial interests” of Britain.

With the Davos-y zeal that is the hallmark of what might be called the business-development complex, Blair suggests – like some latterday Milo Minderbinder out of Catch 22 – that what’s good for Britain plc inevitably will be good for African countries.

Blair’s is a “great game” kind of spin, talking up the “fresh competition for influence in Africa”. All of which is true as far as it goes (which isn’t very far, or fresh) and only credible if you are the kind of romantic optimist who believes that a non-league team has a chance of winning the FA cup while 7-0 down to Man City at half time.

What Blair’s argument conveniently ignores is that other and more powerful players have long been in this game, prominent among them China which has poured billions into pursuing just this influence, while more recently Russia has used the deployment of mercenaries and military aid as leverage to the same end.

But it is where Blair ties his ambitions to development goals that he is on perhaps the shakiest ground with its emphasis on the “transformative” power of private investment.

“The unequivocal demand I hear from African leaders,” he says, reminding us of his access to those African leaders, “is for investment that will spur the industrialisation of the continent and eradicate poverty – a pressing challenge, given the population growth and the fourth industrial revolution.”

And while superficially, at least, Blair’s nostrum is an appealing one, the problem is that its promises have not only been largely overtaken by the harsh reality of facts on the ground, but proved hazardous as well.

Let’s begin with the sugar coating on this prospect, the notion of a “fourth industrial revolution” that will eradicate poverty even as Africa’s population surges in the coming decades.

The premise of its promoters is that, with their potential for a vast, young and untapped workforce, African countries can replicate the miracle of the east-Asian tiger economies during their emergence.

The catch, according to a compelling school of thought, is that this is unlikely to take place. Unit costs for production on the African continent, for a variety of reasons, remain uncompetitively high and supply chains are too slow.

Moves towards automation and cost cutting in the established tiger economies, say the same voices, make it likely that any fourth industrial revolution will be a technological one that skips Africa entirely, unfair as that seems.

And the harsh truth is that far from promising an economic miracle which Britain can cash in on as it exits Europe, the outlook on the African continent is not a rosy one.

Related: The west is exporting austerity to Africa. It’s a disaster

The money that China has gifted to African countries in recent years means that, far from enjoying an economic renaissance, the continent may be on the brink of a painful new debt crisis.

Replicating the last debt crisis in the 1990s – when high commodity prices fuelled a borrowing spree that became unaffordable as those same commodity prices collapsed – the only difference this time round is that, with the current debt held in more opaque circumstances, it will be far harder to forgive than at the successful culmination of the Drop the Debt campaign.

As the International Monetary Fund’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva warned in November, echoing the World Bank’s own alarm, about 40% of countries on the continent have worrying levels of debt including Ethiopia, one of the success stories cited by Blair.

It has not only been the IMF and World Bank ringing the warning bell.

As the UN’s World Economic Situation and Prospects [WESP] report, published last week, makes clear, the global economy, and Africa in particular, faces serious challenges in the immediate future that not only cloud the medium-term economic outlook, but raise major questions over the achievability of the 2030 goal of poverty eradication in the sustainable development goals.

Indeed, the continent’s most developed economy, South Africa, is expected to grow at just 0.7% this year and 1.1% in 2020 while leading oil exporter Nigeria will grow at 2.3% this year and 2.5% next.

The reality – despite the fine words and window dressing – is that the UK-Africa investment summit has little to do with development and good governance in Africa, and everything to do with a diminished Britain desperately looking for new markets post-Brexit. And even then it feels like wishful thinking.

As Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, pointed out in the wake of the summit’s announcement of some £6.5bn in new British investment: the “scramble for Africa” was carefully disguised as a humanitarian project. One hundred and fifty years later, what we saw at the UK-Africa summit today was a desperate and unseemly grab for markets, dressed up as ‘development’.”

Pretending otherwise is just a grubby sleight of hand.

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