Nicholas Daniels is a Government relations strategy adviser. He is based in Nairobi and is currently working on a more comprehensive study of fresh ideas for UK aid, to be published soon.
In his 1984 Christmas pop song about Ethiopia’s famine, Bob Geldof highlighted the despairing plight of millions with the powerful line ‘Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?’ Since then UK overseas aid has become the gift that keeps on giving, and is expected to reach £14 billion next year.
Many of the challenges Africa experienced in the 1980s still exist. In the agricultural sector, where I’ve worked for the last eight years extending loans to smallholder farmers, food insecurity is a problem which paradoxically affects the continent’s farmers. Smallholders struggle to feed their own families because of depleted soils and outdated methods.
It was meant to be so different. Tony Blair established the Department for International Development (Dfid) more than twenty years ago to eliminate poverty. In 2015 David Cameron enshrined in law our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid. Unfortunately, for too long our strategy has been to treat people in developing countries as recipients of charity, rather than economic actors living in a globalised world.
UK aid policy often ignores projections that Africa’s population could more than double to 2.6 billion by 2050. Research shows Nigeria overtaking the United States of America to become the third most populous country on the planet with 400 million people. The Democratic Republic of the Congo – currently averaging 6.3 births per woman – will grow to more than 200 million.
We must rethink our approach to aid spending if Africa is ever going to create the jobs and economic growth needed to support these populations. Failure to do so could result in significantly larger migration flows into Europe as increasingly desperate people risk their lives in search of jobs.
Our aid strategy needs to be more bold, radical, and disruptive. The 0.7 per cent commitment is an opportunity to double down on the private sectors in developing countries – so often constrained by high interest rates and skills shortages – with investments in the form of equity, loans, and debt guarantees, backed by British commercial expertise. We should urge foreign governments to privatise state-run utilities and promote new gig economy platforms.
British companies are currently engaged in constructing Uganda’s second international airport. British entrepreneurs have pioneered a hugely successful chain of coffee shops in Kenya and a low-cost airline in Tanzania. Across Africa, innovators from the UK are leading the way in dynamic new businesses spanning solar energy, education, telecoms, agriculture, and manufacturing. As my American development colleagues would say, we must ‘go big or go home.’
To achieve this, Dfid could be merged with an enlarged Department for International Trade and Investment, and a greater proportion of our aid budget given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to deliver the soft-power diplomacy required to support UK interests. Aid should be less about grants or technical assistance, and more about hard cash which makes developing economies competitive, and generates a financial return on investment.
Critics of this approach will argue that aid must be directed towards the poorest of the poor. If the UK is not at the forefront of combatting Ebola or funding the distribution of mosquito nets, we will have on our conscience the deaths and suffering of millions of innocent people in Africa and around the world.
My view is that rapid population growth and endemic economic hardship demonstrate the failure of conventional Dfid thinking. We need to recognise that aid will never be enough to mitigate the horrendous challenges felt by the world’s poorest. Moreover, the governments of developing countries have to step up and be held accountable by their people for delivering public services.
I accept that some aid money should be kept aside for urgent humanitarian crises. But if we truly believe in eliminating poverty, the UK will focus on promoting private sector competition and creating jobs as the most effective way to achieve this, instead of social welfare programs which prolong the rule of bad governments.
Africa is no longer the despairing continent Geldof illustrated three decades ago. In future, I believe Nigeria will become a key destination for UK exports; Ethiopia will supply our fruit and vegetables; Kenya will have a large and highly educated entrepreneurial middle class.
Penny Mordaunt has consistently argued how aid – when linked to trade and investment – accords with our values as a country and vision for the UK as a global trading nation. Economic growth is the greatest gift we can give the developing world this Christmas. Future policy should be determined to deliver.