BRITAIN has begun moving its economic relations with Africa back to pre-pandemic normality, its Africa Minister James Duddridge said during a visit this week to Ethiopia.
Much of James Duddridge’s visit to Ethiopia was concerned with monitoring the progress of the UK’s financial and technical assistance to the African Union and in particular the Africa Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC) in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
But he also said one of the reasons for his visit was to start to thaw investments and other commerce which had largely been frozen because of the pandemic, or diverted to fighting it.
On Covid-19, he recalled that Britain had earlier in 2020 announced a £20-million donation to Africa’s fight against the disease – half to the AU’s Covid-19 response fund and half to the Africa CDC.
And so, in Addis Ababa, Duddridge met AU health officials as well as British public health experts embedded in the Africa CDC headquarters, and in its five regional centres around the continent – particularly its rapid response effort where Britain was focusing its assistance. He said he was impressed by the work the AU and the British experts were doing to fight Covid-19.
One of the tasks of the Africa CDC is to monitor and publish continental statistics on Covid-19 infections and deaths. Africa’s figures have been comparatively low and some analysts suspect they are being underreported. Duddridge said one of the purposes of his visit was to talk to the AU and the Africa CDC about that.
‘I’m not a medical expert, but clearly there’s less testing going on. It does worry me in some cases,’ he said, adding that he was also concerned about the transparency of some nations’ statistics.
‘There are some countries where there is heavier testing and a higher degree of presumed accuracy. And there are other countries, where one has seen in the press, there have been greater question marks around the level of testing and the accuracy of testing, and where they do the testing as well.
‘And sometimes these spikes relate to increases in testing, rather than an underlying issue.’
He noted recently that Britain had successfully pushed for the suspension of $12bn worth of debt payments to G20 countries for 77 poorer nations.
Duddrige told Daily Maverick he expected that figure to rise as Britain and the G20 had also appealed to non-G20 nations, as well as private creditors, to suspend debt service payments.
‘But that’s not all we’re doing. We’ve also provided £150-million to the IMF catastrophe payment and relief fund. That’s not debt service suspension. That’s actually funding debt repayment through the IMF.
‘And we doubled our contribution of £2.2bn to the IMF poverty reduction and growth trust alongside our French counterparts, which means money that would have been going to fund debt repayment will be spent on healthcare systems.’
In an op-ed in Daily Maverick in May, Duddrige said the UK is ‘committed to making sure everyone across Africa and the world can benefit from a future vaccine.’
Asked whether he believed Africa would get a Covid-19 vaccine at the same time as rich countries such as the UK Duddridge said, ‘We’ll give it to as many people as quickly as possible. That’s the right medical and ethical thing to do, but also the safe thing to do.
‘We still don’t know whether we’re going to get a vaccine. Things look promising with the Oxford University trials last week. And the British prime minister has done a lot of work through GAVI [a public-private global health partnership] on vaccine production and financing.’
Philanthropist Bill Gates recently indicated that Africa would probably have to wait many months after developed countries got a Covid-19 vaccine. Gates told CNN that ‘rich countries’ would probably get a vaccine during the first half of 2021 – ‘and the rest of the world about nine months later.’
So did Duddridge agree with the notion of Africa having to wait for nine months to receive the vaccine? ‘We’ve got to get it in order. We’ve got to get a vaccine, we’ve got to fund the vaccine and we’ve got to produce the vaccine. Clearly, if it’s discovered in a [particular] country, they’re going to want to look to vaccinate some of their own citizens first. But clearly it must then roll out generally, including to the African continent.’
On the economic impact of the pandemic, Duddridge said it was ‘Day 1’ of the UK’s effort to revive economic relations with Africa.
He said one of his tasks was to monitor the progress of the £6.5bn worth of investment deals announced by British and African business leaders at the UK-Africa investment summit in London in January.
That conference, though, ‘now feels like a world away,’ he said.
‘The reality is that business… The British government and African governments’ priorities have shifted to Covid-19, so even private-sector investment is being repurposed towards that use.
‘And we’ve been helping with some of that.’ he added, by shifting the government’s manufacturing programme to help with the manufacture of PPE in Senegal and potentially in South Africa.
‘So it’s fair to say we have not made the progress we would like to have made on that £6.5bn commitment, but it’s something we’ll be looking at dusting off and driving forward.
‘That’s something we need to quickly get back to, and part of the reason I’m in Ethiopia, apart from ministerial business, is to start cautiously moving again, because as well as the Covid-19 implications, the world is going to be whacked by the health implications and the broader economic implications globally.’
The UK would now be putting a lot more effort into getting its economy fully back on its feet so it can help the developing world grow and create employment.
‘So that’s something we’re going to be tracking onwards.’
In re-boosting the economy, the UK would also focus on ‘building back better,’ he said, using the new slogan for a more sustainable post-Covid-19 global economy. Britain was well-positioned to do this as it would be chairing the COP26 global climate conference later in 2020.
This was also important for Africa, he said, because if the continent conducted its industrial revolution the way China or Britain had conducted theirs, ‘we’re buggered.’
However, he noted that an African country like Mozambique was suffering the effects of climate change – presumably a reference to its increasingly frequent cyclones – even though it was not a great emitter of greenhouse gases. Other parts of the continent were experiencing plagues of locusts while rising sea levels threatened Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
‘These are all very real impacts on the developing world. So we need to build back better with the climate in mind. In partnership between the developing world and the more established world, economically, in terms of industrial revolution.’
Though Britain withdrew from the European Union in January, Duddridge said this would not diminish its overall development assistance to Africa, though it would change its priorities.
‘We’re still committed to spending 0.7 percent of gross national income’ on development assistance, he said, citing the OECD target.
‘Six months ago, about 10 percent of that was through the EU, which works out as just shy of £1.5bn. Though we left the EU a few months ago, we are still contributing to that budget and will continue to do so for about four to five years.’
Duddridge said Britain would gradually reallocate the money it was now contributing to EU development assistance, to different priorities and different methodologies. ‘But that is not a sum of money that becomes available either at the end of this year or when we exited.
‘A decision will be taken on how to prioritise that. What I would say is the prime minister is totally committed to the manifesto commitments we made to prioritise it, in particular, towards girls’ education – 12 years of quality education, in addition to work we’ve already been doing.
‘So that’s quite a big pivot. That’s a strong hint about what we will be wanting to do over time. But in the short term, we are doing a lot more humanitarian, rather than longer-term development because of the Covid-19 situation.’
Duddridge noted that the UK’s trade deal with South Africa and other members of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and Mozambique, which had to be negotiated to replace the trade deal among the same countries and the EU, had been signed in October 2019 and ratified in February 2020.
Some details still needed to be worked out, however, ‘but the trajectory is good.’
‘And post-Brexit, we’re looking to our Commonwealth partners… personally, my passion as an ex-African banker and someone who has been involved in the continent for about 25 years, is doing business on the continent.
‘I love the continent. The UK has got a fabulous, historic relationship. We’re proud of the good things of our history and relationship and camaraderie, and want to use that for the prosperity of the continent.
‘And that growth, longer-term, is where the success of the continent is going to come from, rather than a paternalistic, altruistic aid environment.
‘Our department is the department for international development for a reason. It’s not the department for international aid. It’s about long-term development with equal partners,’ he said.
Duddridge added that South Africa had shown the lead, where other countries on the continent had not always grasped the opportunities.