As Foreign Minister in the mid-1990s, I witnessed dramatic changes as the Berlin Wall fell. But this could be overtaken in historical significance with a combination of Covid-19, climate change and the rise of China. Lim, the former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, had no illusions about the cost of misusing public money, but also saw the price of not investing in the UK’s global interests. As Brexit secretary, I have seen firsthand how developing countries value the UK’s role in international development.
Across Africa, Britain has missed its natural advantage. China has gained strength when we keep our eyes peeled. Britain’s bilateral trade has taken a hit and Britain’s influence is now waning. In the shadow of Covid, people are afraid and anxious. The economy is weak. This continent is ripe for exploitation by foreign powers who ruthlessly seek profit and control.
We overlooked an opportunity to turn the tremendous success of British Soft Power into protecting our interests across Africa. And now, in the grip of a pandemic, the continent faces instability and vulnerability on a massive scale.
Soft power is where Britain excelled in recent history. However, our status as an international development powerhouse, which took ten years to build, is rapidly disintegrating. For Africa, this is already having catastrophic consequences. Clinics are closing, schools are abandoned, and the economy is stagnating. Ethiopia is in famine. But you don’t have to.
Of all the diplomatic tools we can handle, soft power is the most effective because it is constructive, not destructive. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the U.S. Senate, compromising soft power will inevitably pay a higher price for using hard power, which is a costly price for everyone involved. Soft power, on the other hand, is economical, transformative, and provides mutual benefits.
No country is looking at us when we provide aid.
The word reciprocity is key here. This is what sets the UK apart from the competition. For us, it’s about values and partnerships, and for China, it’s about pursuing ownership and creating debt. Our soft power should be the basis of our positive influence. No country is looking at us when we provide aid. It’s not about giving them handouts, it’s about helping them. Aid is not a substitute for self-sufficiency. It’s an investment, not a donation.
We want to create conditions for people to thrive because their success is also ours. One of the goals of creating the basics of stability, education and health is to create space for the private sector and opportunities for trade and diplomatic success that flow from prosperity.
But we overlooked the enormous potential of a continent like Africa. Continents like Africa had to be the natural partners of our choice. Not only have we missed important infrastructure projects, but China’s economic strengthening has significantly weakened our influence.
It will now require two efforts to carve out Britain’s place in the world. At the international level, we must continue to be at the forefront of efforts to achieve greater unity in the West. We need to strengthen and expand our alliances and restore faith in a rules-based system. This means helping the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank modernize and improve. And to secure the G7’s presidency, the new D10’s action-oriented dialogue opens up for the rest of this year as an important balance between China and Russia.
Second, we must revive our soft power influence globally. We have the immeasurable advantages of our leadership positions in the English language, the Commonwealth, and in the United Nations and NATO. The Biden Presidency can help align these goals with Global Britain’s priorities. But this week’s Cabis Bay summit will be a credible restart of multilateralism if Britain sets an example.
We must keep our commitment to aid. At Gleneagles and Lough Erne, the UK took the lead in helping the then G8 reach its 0.7% aid target and deliver on that promise. Stepping back from it at the beginning of a new era of epidemics and multilateralism is diplomatic self-harm, not to mention devastating consequences for the poorest of the most vulnerable countries on the planet. With aid cuts this year, it should guarantee a return of 0.7% soon.
We live in an unstable world. Russia is becoming increasingly unpredictable. China is increasingly dogmatic. Africa will increase in geopolitical importance. Continents are destined to have a profound impact on the future of the world. The population will grow by more than 1 billion by 2050, accounting for 60% of the world’s population growth. If we do not use aid to eradicate disease and hunger, to educate girls, to stimulate economic growth through trade, and to help African leaders raise their people’s living standards, we will miss a huge opportunity.
If we don’t restore foreign aid next year, China will come in as we move. It’s already happening as African governments owe China through infrastructure projects as well as national debt financing.
What I’ve said so far is a claim to real politics, our educated selfishness. But while powerful in itself, it dwarfs the moral case. I disagree with the pace at which aid budgets are growing, but I believe that an equally sudden cut this year, which increased by a third in 2013 (due to the huge potential for waste), will have disastrous consequences.
Hundreds of thousands of children will suffer and many will die as a direct result. The cut is only 1% of what the prime minister has borrowed this year, but it will have catastrophic costs. Its cost, measured in children’s lives, will live in our consciences as much as the unwise wars of the past. We must put it on the brink of proper pride in our achievements turning into shame for our failures.
David Davis is the former Brexit secretary and MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
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