British Africa policy after Labour: Coalition, austerity, continuity and change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: IDD


This series will be the first to systematically examine the legacy of Labour's efforts to transform British Africa policy and relations (1997-2010), exploring (dis)continuities between this period and the current coalition government. Working with leading scholars from across disciplines and partners in the policy community, including Chatham House, Institute for Public Policy Research and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa, we will provide the first in depth examination of contemporary Africa policy, analysing how UK Africa relations are managed, presented and justified in a context of financial austerity, coalition government and the increased public scrutiny resulting from ring-fencing aid budgets whilst making deep cuts to UK public spending.

Africa is often seen as marginal to UK interests, yet it occupies a special place in the history, foreign policy, self-image and public imagination of the UK. During the Cold War African states were often battlegrounds for superpowers and their allies, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bipolar world order created space for new forms of international engagement with African states, based on different assumptions about the nature of Africa's challenges and the role and strategies of international actors to resolve them. In the UK, the opportunity to redefine relations with Africa and tackle challenges of poverty, underdevelopment, chronic conflict and international marginalisation, was taken up by Labour Governments (1997-2010). Often drawing on highly abstract images of the continent, Labour presented Africa as an area of special UK interest. Prime Minister Tony Blair argued the international community must assist Africa, reflecting moral obligation based on shared humanity and, in a new addition, links between underdevelopment and insecurity in Africa and security elsewhere in the world. Africa under Labour became a matter of national interest and national security.

Labour sought to transform UK Africa policy domestically and approaches to Africa internationally. They created a ministry, the Department for International Development (DFID), and promoted a joined up approach to Africa across DFID, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence. Internationally, they pushed for development goals, aid targets, debt relief, and building African capacity to manage conflict. The claim to be pursuing an 'ethical foreign policy' foundered however on the 'arms to Africa' scandal, and some argued that new rhetoric masked 'business as usual'. Nevertheless by the end of Labour's second term the UK had developed an international reputation for its focus on Africa; when the coalition government took power in 2010 it inherited a different relationship with Africa to that of 1997. Domestically it was underpinned by new ways of working and the role of DFID, but complicated by financial crisis and need for UK spending cuts. Internationally, UK attempts to establish a shift in approaches to Africa have also been challenged by rising powers (e.g. China and India).

Providing in depth and thematic examination of contemporary British Africa policy, the series will engage with ongoing debates in policy and in UK and international scholarship, particularly in Europe and Africa, crossing Politics, Development, Political Economy, International Relations, History and Area Studies. Working closely with our non academic partners we will form a new network of scholars across these areas, prioritising early career researchers as speakers and participants. The series will contribute to ongoing and emerging debates with policy relevance, primarily focusing on: UK relationships with Africa; the role of foreign policy, especially on Africa, in UK self image; UK public attitudes to Africa and development; African agency in influencing UK policy; and the role of the UK in a changing global context, characterised by financial austerity and the rise of new actors in Africa and globally.

Planned Impact

The seminar series will produce and disseminate a detailed and evidence based assessment of the legacy of Labour government for British Africa policy and explore how the experiences of coalition Government and financial austerity in the UK have impacted UK-Africa relations. The research presented during the series will therefore be valuable to a range of non-academic audiences:

1. UK Government Ministries, Political Parties & Cross Party Groups
In a UK political context likely to be defined by a financial austerity into the foreseeable future, the focus of this series on how this affects British Africa policy is highly relevant. Ministries that will benefit from this review include the two with primary responsibility for Africa policy, DFID, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both of which have agreed to send representatives to the seminars. The three main political parties will also benefit from our exploration of processes of compromise and cooperation between coalition parties and of how Africa policy fits into their party identities. Across parties, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa, with over 150 members across parliament, is interested in our findings on trends in UK Africa relations beyond the period covered in current literature (largely pre-2005) and the APPG Chair has agreed to host a briefing in parliament on this issue.

2. Policy research, advocacy & campaign organisations in the UK
This encompasses think-tanks including Chatham House and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), both seminar hosts. It also includes large professional associations with non academic members such as the Royal African Society, African Studies Association and Royal Geographical Society. Drawing on networks established by Prof. Harrison (CI), the series will also benefit organisations including Make Poverty History, War on Want and World Development Movement, which can draw upon the systematic and thematic analysis of key drivers of contemporary UK Africa policy to inform their engagement with UK Government and public awareness/advocacy campaigns.

3. African Governments and Institutions.
The focus of the series on Africa means the discussions and outputs will have relevance to the African policy community, particularly those who are members of the Commonwealth. By inviting representatives from African embassies and African research institutes to the seminars the series will promote ties between UK researchers and their home institutions and those in Africa, such as the British Institute in Eastern Africa and Rift Valley Institute, with which PI and CIs (especially Anderson, former BIEA Director) have existing links.

4. Media covering international affairs.
The series will have a proactive, ongoing media engagement strategy, focusing on outlets that cover Africa including print media (Guardian, Times, Telegraph), news weeklies (Economist, New Internationalist) and those devoted to Africa (BBC Focus on Africa, New African), as well as radio (BBC R4/World Service) and television (Newsnight, C4 News). Representatives from such outlets regularly attend events held at two of our hosts - Chatham House and IPPR. The series will engage media by inviting attendance at seminars and via written outputs (executive summaries, press releases) and social media updates on not only the seminars in isolation but also emerging news items relevant to the series. This will contribute to better informed media coverage of UK-Africa relations and raise the series' profile.

5. The general public.
The series will seek to engage the public in debates on UK-Africa relations through a communication strategy drawing on strengths and networks of the seminar hosts, especially Chatham House and IPPR. The series will raise awareness of key issues on current and future UK-Africa policy to elevate and inform public debate, aided by engagement with NGOs, civil society and social movements (see 'Pathways to Impact').


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Title Audio recordings of presentations from the seminars 
Description Podcasts of the presentations from the seminars, where presenters have given permission for these to be made public. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact The accessing of these podcasts has led to contact between prospective PhD students and the series PI. This has led to one student beginning a PhD in 2015 which is directly linked to the research seminars core theme (with Dr Danielle Beswiuck, University of Birmingham). 
Description The main findings of the research seminars were :
1. That the Labour period under Brown and Blair has had a significant impact on the way the UK public thinks about Africa, particularly in relation to UK policy and national identity. Since 2010 we have seen some continuity in the underlying justification for UK Africa engagement (self interest and moral responsibility), as well as some key differences emerging from Labour to coalition and Conservative governments (including emphasis on private sector, promoting 'self-help', 'trade not aid'). Labour is also having to rethink its approach to Africa in opposition, but this has not been a priority for the Party.
2. The research has also suggested that whilst Africa continues to be an important area for UK engagement, it has become more similar to other geographical regions insofar as there is no one 'Africa policy'. Instead UK national and strategic interests are being differentiated in relation to specific states and regions, making the definition of an 'Africa policy' difficult and rendering the concept less useful as a component of analysis. This could be welcomed as a sign of growing recognition of the complexity of the continent, and could also reflect rising African activism and agency (by states, regions, and organisations) in their development of their external relations.
3. Africa is being re-conceptualised in UK policy as the government seeks to articulate Britain's place in the world following the EU referendum in 2015. Engagement, through aid but not exclusively so, if being presented as core evidence that the UK is 'outward facing'.
4. The ways Africa is presented in the UK, by charities, politicians and the media, may be undermining rather than reinforcing support for overseas aid. There is a need for more nuanced and honest account of aid, including the risks and challenges which come with a focus on fragile states, if the government is to maintain reasonable public support for the 0.7% aid spending commitment and an independent UK Department for International Development.
5. Bringing together scholars working on African politics, UK Party Politics, UK public opinion, UK foreign and development policy, and from History, Sociology, Development Studies, Law and Politics has allowed us to generate a rich picture of contemporary UK Africa relations, including key drivers and trends. Taking this forward in an edited book will help to demonstrate the value of this to academic and policy audiences .
6. On a practical note,the 2 general elections and the EU referendum made engagement with policymakers, civil servants and political party representatives extremely challenging. We were able to secure individual speakers and participants for each of the seminar events, but it was not possible to hold the All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa briefing during the life of the project as we had hoped. We have postponed this until the edited collection is published later in 2019 and hope to host a book launch and discussion with Chatham House, series partner, to engage with APPG members and civil servants involved in UK Africa policy.
Exploitation Route The events we held and the discussions emerging from them suggests that a more nuanced approach to UK Africa relations is necessary, for example through studies of the bilateral relationships between the UK and particular states, such as Nigeria and Kenya, or in relation to specific policy areas and themes, such as organised crime and human rights. It also suggests that there is much more to be done to understand Conservative Party thinking on Africa, compared to that of the Labour Party. This is an area which the PI is now actively researching in follow up projects over 2017. Finally, the research has highlighted the need for greater engagement by British politics and foreign policy scholars with UK Africa policy, and vice versa. This is being taken forward by members of the British International Studies Association working group on Africa and International Studies, seeking to collaborate more with members of the British Foreign Policy working group and also the Political Studies Association.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description Our findings have been used to underpin a new research project in collaboration with the Conservative Friends of International Development. The project aims to understand how overseas volunteering affects Conservative Party members and their attitudes to international development. This will help to informing public, academic and civil society understandings of the drivers of continuing Conservative Party (and government) support for a significant role for the UK in international development. This has included attendance and presentation at Conservative Party Conference fringe events in 2016, 2017 and 2018, as well as production of a report for Conservative Friends of International Development. The PI is part of a newly established Tory Research Impact Network set up by the Conservatives and Conservatism specialist group of the Political Studies Association. As part of this group she presented the research on a panel at the Conservative Party Conference in 2018, alongside speakers from Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Parliament of Zambia and University of Edinburgh.
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Invited participant at off the record FCO/DFID workshop on the government's new UK Africa strategy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Organisation of and presentation at Foreign and Commonwealth Office 'Africa Research Day' 2017
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description Participation by interim PI in FCO Challenge Session on UK Africa policy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description Written evidence by interim PI for Int Dev Select Committee Inquiry on DFID allocation of resources
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Research Engagement and Collaboration Hub
Amount £18,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Birmingham 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 07/2017
Description Conservative Party overseas volunteering 
Organisation Conservative Friends of International Development
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Dr Beswick has begun a new research project in collaboration with Conservative Friends of International Development. Following contact being made at the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, a pilot research project was designed in order to investigate impacts of overseas volunteering, particularly in Africa, on Conservative Party and the members involved. The project will run until July 2017. Dr Beswick will work with a post-doc research assistant to review literature on overseas volunteering supported by employers (there is no existing literature on such activity as supported by political parties) and will undertake interviews with volunteers, analysing these and producing a report and academic article.
Collaborator Contribution CFID is providing in kind support in the form of advice from its Director and staff on contacts for the research. It is also providing review of the interview guides, assistance with a participant feedback and dissemination event in London in Summer 2017.
Impact Still ongoing
Start Year 2017
Description Article for 'the Conversation' by interim PI 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interim PI produced a piece for the conversation in response to UK media discussion of the link between UK aid and the military spending of African states.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description ESRC Festival Soc Sci event - fake news and development policy (sixth form) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Approximately 120 sixth form pupils attended a talk by Series PI on 'fake news and UK development policy'. This was part of the 2017 ESRC Festival of Social Sciences. A graphic recording artist attended the session and produced an image summary of the discussions which has been presented to the Sixth Form.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Organised Foreign and Commonwealth Office Africa study day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Jonathan Fisher - interim PI - organised, facilitated and chaired annual Foreign and Commonwealth Office Africa Study Day at Sandhurst Military Academy on 21 March 2017. Full details are available at
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Public Lecture by chair of Commission for Africa 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Professor Wickstead gave a presentation on UK Aid and Africa at the University of Birmingham in February 2017. Students, staff and students from local schools attended and participated in a discussion on aid and Africa. Following the presentation Professor Wickstead has been in contact with two A-level students keen to know more about UK Africa relation and with two PhD students at the University of Birmingham researching in this area. He is actively supporting their research through facilitating contact with other current and former UK policymakers. He is also involved in a nascent civil society campaign to promote the benefits of UK aid and has invited Dr Beswick to participate in this.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Public lecture with Q&A on Advocacy in Conflict (Professor Alex de Waal) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This public lecture took place at SOAS and was open to all. It attracted over 120 attendees including staff from the Foreign Office, NGOs and think tanks, as well as many students and academics. The talk sparked discussion of how crisis and conflict in Africa is represented to the public and the implications of this for NGO funding, public support for fundraising and for development assistance.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016