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Rekindling Africa focus

Rekindling Africa focus

Philip Parham was appointed the UK government’s Envoy to the Commonwealth on 18 June 2018. He is also the Special Envoy for the UK-Africa Investment Summit 2020 which takes place in London in January 2020. Previously, Philip was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from July 2014 until June 2018. Before that, he was the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York York (2009 to 2013), and British High Commissioner to Tanzania (2006 to 2009). Philip joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1993 after working for 10 years as an investment banker with Morgan Grenfell and then Barclays. His first FCO job was Head of the Pakistan/Afghanistan Section from 1993 to 1994. In 1995, he was Private Secretary to the FCO Minister covering Americas, South and South-East Asia, Public Diplomacy, Consular and Visa work and (in the House of Commons) Africa and International Development. He was Head of the Iraq Operations Unit 2003 to 2004, and then Head of the Counter-Terrorism Policy Department 2004 to 2006 based in London. Recently, he was in Addis Ababa where Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter has the chance to sit down with him for a brief interview: Excerpts.    

The Reporter: Let’s talk about the UK-Africa Investment forum; what is it about?

Philip Parham: It is a meeting that will take place on the 20th of January, 2019 involving African and British governments and businesses. It will be the first of its kind and around 800 to 1000 people are expected to be in attendance. Many African heads of state and government are expected to participate in this meeting; and many of them have already confirmed their attendance. We anticipate improvement not only in quantity but also in quality of the investment flow between the two. In spite of having around 8 of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world, at the moment, Africa is at the receiving end of only 4 percent of the global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flow. With the city of London as the largest financial center in the world, overseeing trillions of pounds in investment funds, we know only limited amount of that capital is being redirected to the African continent. The UK is already the biggest FDI source country to Africa, with an accumulated investment of close to 46 million pounds. So, what we wish to see is British businesses to come away from the summit with an understanding of the opportunities in Africa and how some of the risks which they have perceived and which have held them back in the past can be managed; and how some UK investments have succeeded in Africa. On the other hand, we want African governments and businesses to come away from the summit with the clearer understanding of the opportunities to fund investments from the UK. We also wish to explore, develop and announce new facilities to encourage that flow of investment from the UK.

As you have noted, the UK is already the biggest investor in Africa, so what do you want to get out of the UK-African investment summit, then?

As I was saying both the need for investment and the flow of investment both from the side of Africa and the UK could be even greater. We believe, the summit brings together two things to Africa, which are, in one hand, the city of London (largest financial services center in the world) with its exceptional financial and professional services and with strong record of innovation; and on the other hand, there is the UK government which is committed to international development, and has been a world leader in the involving methods and mechanisms of supporting international development, including collaboration with the private sector to drive a sustainable development. If you put those two things together, a government having that strong record and with those strong values and the ability and the funding streams for international development which the city of London represents, you definitely have a very strong combination, of which we (UK and Africa) can make more use.

Do you have some sort of a target figure for the flow of investment which you want to achieve via the UK-Africa summit?

To be honest, we have not plucked a particular number out of the air at his stage; but, we really want to see the UK becoming the investor with the greatest impact in Africa. I can say there is growing demand among investors in the UK for an impact investment, which is not only about achieving financial target but also attaining other social and economic targets; including and most importantly the creation and sustainment of jobs. I think the need for job creating investment is going to be one of the themes at this summit.

Is it going to be an annual event, I mean the summit..?

I can’t predict that, since it is going to be a decision for our Prime Minister and other ministers whether they want to do that or not. But what I can say with absolute certainty is that it (the summit) is not going to be a one off event where everyone would go home and forget about it. It would rather be the beginning of a real change in the investment partnership between the UK and its African partners; there will be a real follow through. As I said before, the kind of new structures and financial sources that will be developed around the summit will have an impact over many years. At the same time, we will be doing other things to compliment these efforts to boost investment including helping African investment promotion agencies to build up their capacities to make their economies as attractive as possible to investors; we will also be expanding the work we are doing to help African countries to broaden and deepen their financial markets as it is very critical to have a developed financial markets inside these countries to draw investment from within their own territory as well as outside.

As you know, some of the emerging nations like China, India, Turkey, Russia and also Japan have similar investment summits with Africa for quite a while now. Is it correct to see UK’s initiative as intent to step up competition in Africa? Is UK to become more aggressive towards African markets, now?

I think, we can say that this new platform definitely signals renewed commitment from the UK to build those investment partnerships with African countries; there is no question about this. Regarding the institutionalizing of the platform it remains to be seen as to how they want to proceed. I suspect most stakeholders feel that they have enough meetings and would not want to add another one. I think, once the stakeholders agree on how to go about with the investment partnerships, they might feel that they don’t need these continuous engagements. I don’t want to preempt what those involved may decide to do, but we are very conscious of the point you made that there are a lot of other platforms out there. However it is structured or if it is institutionalized or not, the distinctive feature of the UK-Africa investment summit will be those things I described earlier: the combination of the city of London and the financing streams it makes available and a very committed government. In fact, there are no other members of the G20, which is stuck with that 0.7 percent of GNI target (national resources to be dedicated to international development) except the UK. Not only that, the UK also has that strong value, expertise and innovation towards international development. I think, this is very strong combination of things that the UK brings to the table to make that sustainable development happen in Africa.

But with a number of these platforms all over the Africa and the world, investor nations are now in some sort of competition…?

 I don’t really see this as a competition and I don’t think if aggressive is the word to describe UK’s approach, here. We see it as we have a very important role to play just as the other…

What is wrong with competition, though?

I am not denying the fact that we are all competing, in a friendly way, in the international investment and financial markets. But, the way we choose to see this is as the UK having these very important instruments which it brings to the table which will help Africa to achieve real things that are very consistent with our values. This is a ‘win-win’ for both Africa and UK and of course the rest of the global economy. If Africa prospers, which I believe it will, the whole world benefits from the situation. The African population is close to two billion and there will be plenty to go around in terms of market opportunities. So, it is not a cutthroat exercise.

Do you expect some sort of a grand unveiling of resources that the UK will make available to Africa during the January 20th summit, as it is customary with other summits?

I don’t want to foretell what is to come on the summit; again it will be the decision of high-ranking officials. As you know, in the UK, the government is being restructured at this time; and hence I don’t want to preempt the decision coming out of the Prime minister office. That said, I do know UK’s focus now will be more on sustainable investment than big announcements. It is true that the action of the UK government in collaboration with UK’s private sector will be announced at the summit. But, the most interesting outcome will be long term impact than some figure attached to this conference. We are also very conscious of these big financial commitments unveiled during such summits and how these figures would eventually fail apart. Surely, we are not going to go down that road.  

As you have mentioned, a new conservative majority government is taking shape back at the UK and we have heard of the strong skepticism that the new ruling party harbors for aid and development cooperation. Do you see an issue for UK-Africa cooperation in the upcoming years because of this?

I think I am right in saying that the conservative party is the one which suggested the 0.7 percent GNI commitment to international development to be enshrined into UK’s law a while back. And in practice as well, the party has shown strong commitment to meeting that target. As I said before, I can’t preempt policies that the Prime Minister and his cabinet may pass in the future. However, at the moment, it is a matter of law that we provide 0.7 percent of our gross national income in the form of oversees development assistance.

Also reports suggest that the future of organizations like DFID might even be uncertain given the position of the new government (party) towards development assistance. Anything on that…?

Again, I can’t speak to the policy decisions of the government, which are yet to come. Yes, I have also seen the reports and heard the rumors. But, I have no inside information on that; all I can say is that different governments organize themselves in different ways. Some might have different international trade and development departments; some governments might have them both under the foreign department. In the past, the UK used to have international cooperation, overseas development assistance under the responsibility of foreign and Commonwealth office. So, there are different ways of structuring and I don’t think it should be assumed that the overall attitude and policies towards overseas development would also shift. Yet again, I can’t presume the policy decision of my government.

Speaking of UK’s government structure what are the various responsibilities of Foreign and Commonwealth office, DFID and the like, it could be a bit complicated?

Our foreign and Commonwealth office is basically our department of foreign affairs; the reason why we say Commonwealth is that as you know we want to signal that the other common wealth countries are not exactly foreign to the UK. We regard the other 50 members of the Commonwealth as particularly close to us; perhaps not just as foreign, while our foreign office encompasses our relationship with all other foreign nations. We have an independent department for international development, DFID, which as the name implies, oversees most of our overseas development assistance work. Of course, there are aspects our overseas development activities which are conducted by other governmental departments including the department of foreign and Commonwealth office, department of environment, food and rural affairs providing assistance in their particular areas of competence and expertise.

The Commonwealth countries, which are mostly former British colonies, are not particularly regarded as foreign so with regards to new platforms like UK-African investment forum what is going to be the status of the African nation which are also members of the Commonwealth?

You have to know that not all of the Commonwealth nations are former British colonies; for instance, in Africa the like of Mozambique and Rwanda, which are members of the Commonwealth, were never administered by colonial Britain. But, with regard to the forum there will not be any disparities. The Commonwealth is an entirely free association of independent member states; there are 19 of them in African and 34 spread elsewhere in the world. It is very much not an exclusive association; as there are some things that the association might decide to do as a whole or in smaller groups. They are pretty much free to seek any form of association and grouping to choose to conduct their business.

Lastly, with the new administration in the UK largely believed to be one to deliver Brexit after two years, can we say UK’s renewed investment interest in Africa is some sort of a response to its now assured departure from the European common market?

The best way to look at this is our leaving the EU will make as freer to look for market links elsewhere in the world. So, this is an opportunity to seek partnerships in Africa as in anywhere in the world. That is certainly part of the picture and undoubtedly we will be more driven to build partnerships around the world. But, the imperatives of partnerships in Africa, as I described it, was there anyway; regardless of Brexit. But, Brexit certainly leaves us freer to pursue these goals.