The past 20 years of international engagement have not been comfortable for the West. In the 1990s, many hoped that we were entering an era of unparalleled western power and influence, in which our institutions and values would remake a globe of liberal democracies. Since then we have faced Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, the Sahel, South Sudan, and more. The Arab Spring was bewildering.
Emerging states have embraced authoritarian systems. The West’s relative economic power has declined far more rapidly than anyone anticipated (the United States’ current share of global gross domestic product is approximately half of what it was in 1960’ China’s share being about 10 times larger); and western institutions have struggled to adapt to economies and states that are a fraction of Britain’s size.
The answer to all this cannot be isolation. Our world is far too deeply interwoven for that to be in our interests, or those of others. But as western influence is challenged, we must develop a much lighter, more nimble response to the world, in which we use hundreds of different instruments (including insurance markets, crime agencies, development programs, intelligence, culture, charities, our links with the UN and World Bank, and our own private sector) to nurture relationships, persuade, tackle need and poverty overseas, and protect ourselves. We will often find ourselves unable to do things we desperately want to — or even need — to do. We will have to move very quickly into uncertain openings, without being confident of the outcome.
This will place a premium not on military or economic power, or traditional aid, but on relationships, partnerships, pragmatism, risk and a deep and flexible understanding of foreign contexts. Fortunately, this is a historical moment far more suited to Britain than almost any time in the past 10 years.
And as a new Africa Minister, I feel, that Africa shows the first glimmers of how Britain might succeed in this new world. No other continent has forced us to confront modernity — population growth, environmental pressure, poverty, fragility or urbanisation — in such an extreme form. Nor such a pace of change — Ethiopia and Rwanda, for example, have moved from famine and genocide into two decades of rapid economic growth. Africa has forced us to be more realistic about Britain’s place in the world — France has real influence in the Sahel, and nothing we have could match the US forces in Djibouti, or indeed Chinese investment. But we have also seen the limits to US or Chinese power, and realised how much influence Britain has developed as a result of our commitment to international development.
Africa has taught us how to act positively, even in environments where our power is limited — how to work against terrorism in a failed state, introduce family planning into a conservative nation, find opportunities for British companies in a state-run economy, how to use mobile telephony to support famine victims in Somalia, and how to create jobs in remote parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Africa has also shown Britain the limits of technocratic solutions to global problems, and the assumption of shared values over the past 25 years. We have learnt again how everything we do (from trade to development) depends on local politics — how ideology and power can hamper family planning, but revolutionise school enrolment; fight drug-traffickers; deter the private sector; or favour British investment. The British prime minister has addressed the connections that bind Britain’s work by introducing joint ministers in the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign Office, and deepening cooperation between departments. But these lessons — of the interdependence of our programme, and the centrality of political expertise — have even deeper implications for the way our development, overseas trade, intelligence, immigration and cultural teams will need to cooperate in the future.
Perhaps most importantly, it is in Africa that we have begun to find and promote the people we need. Take Ed, for example, who I saw both working with extraordinary charisma, patience, ingenuity and sense of humour in a remote rural school, with class sizes of 140, before negotiating with the minister in the capital. He was able to do this because of his field experience, which is not traditional in the civil service — three years as a teacher in a remote part of Cameroon; a Master’s degree on education in Africa, another three years in a charity designing district level education programmes in Malawi — all before being recruited to take over our education projects in Uganda.
Or take our ambassador in Ethiopia. There, the UK is trying to help address a near famine; support industrial parks producing T-shirts for Tesco; resolve the tensions between human rights and a development programme that has doubled the incomes of one of the world’s poorest countries; and foster our relations with the African Union (which is based in Addis Ababa). She has to address the practical challenges of feeding nomadic communities and preventing future droughts, and understand how exactly the local clan politics make these programmes very difficult. Her ability to do this reflects the fact that she has not only worked in both DfID and the Foreign Office at a senior level, but also worked as an anthropologist in remote desert communities of Mali, served in the World Bank, and can speak to the head of the African Union in fluent French. So how did Britain develop such a realistic, creative, coordinated, political approach to Africa? How did it recruit and promote staff with such unusual knowledge and relevant skills?
Part of the secret is that Britain’s resources and ambitions were far more limited in Africa than in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and staff were given more freedom to experiment. And it is this lighter footprint, this nimbler, locally rooted, political approach that might finally allow Britain to escape the long shadow of Victorian empire, and rediscover some of the independence, flair, self-knowledge and pragmatism that defined the country in the Elizabethan era.
The writer is the Africa Minister at the Foreign Commonwealth Office.