British Prime Minister Theresa May visited South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya this week. She came armed with promises: to invest an extra £4-billion on the African continent, and to maintain current levels of foreign aid designated for Africa, which has been under attack from some of her colleagues in the Conservative Party.
She came with platitudes too: “True partnerships are not about one party doing unto another but states, governments, businesses and individuals working together in a responsible way to achieve common goals.”
Britain’s history in this country, and on this continent, means that these fine words cannot be taken at face value.
It is no coincidence that May’s newfound commitment to Britain’s former colonial territories comes as the country searches for new markets to make up for the slump in trade with the European Union that is anticipated to follow Brexit.
To her credit, May did not attempt to disguise the nature of Britain’s commitment to Africa: “I am unashamed about the need to ensure that our aid programme works for the UK. So today I am committing that our development spending will not only combat extreme poverty but at the same time tackle global challenges and support our own national interest.”
There’s no doubt, however, that Britain’s national interest comes first. The very existence of its aid programme is proof of that.
In 2015, at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, the G77 group of developing nations —led by South Africa —made a radical proposal: to scrap aid. In return, they asked that developed nations close the tax havens that allow trillions of dollars to escape from the world’s poorest countries. In Africa, the cost of these illicit financial flows out of the continent dwarf the aid money that comes in.
Britain, along with the United States, ruthlessly shut down this proposal.
In its hour of need, Britain is now turning to its former colonies for help. But as long as it continues to dictate the terms of this relationship, a “true partnership” is as elusive as ever.