Bilateral Trade Debate - 11 Nov 2015
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Sheikh for instigating this important and timely debate. We have a shared love for Africa and a passion to see Anglo-African relations given a greater standing by both the Government and the private sector. I also echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in commending the noble Lord, Lord Oates, who made an excellent maiden speech and recalled his experiences in Ethiopia.
On Friday, the Office for National Statistics gave us some good news: our trade deficit fell from £10.8 billion in August to £9.4 billion in September. Our inability to export more than we import has become a largely unchallenged part of the economic make-up of our country. Not since 1998 have we run a trade surplus, and that was only for a short period.
Our leading politicians and business figures fret about our membership of the European Union despite its obvious economic and demographic issues, and many have realised that we have to build stronger relations with India, China and other emerging countries to balance out our continental problems. Yet the incredible rise of Africa—the obvious potential of this brilliant continent—has been ignored by far too many.
Africa is waiting for us to acknowledge that the prism of aid, conflict and corruption that we continue to see the continent through is almost entirely out of date. The recent responses in Burkina Faso and Burundi were a wonderful demonstration of how far Africa has come: two military coups that not only failed but saw organisations such as the African Union and ECOWAS play leading roles in resolving matters peacefully. We need our politicians to acknowledge the tremendous progress that Africa has made and the potential it has. We need to acknowledge that Africa is our partner, not a charity.
The former President of Nigeria correctly said that Africa is the last great frontier of emerging markets. The United States has seen the potential: President Obama held a hugely successful African summit last year. Last month, Prime Minister Modi and the Indian Government held their own African summit, with my good friend Anil Agarwal helping to bring it together. The UK has been behind the curve too many times, allowing others to build trade, economic and strategic relations first and then constantly trying to catch up. Let us not make the same mistake again.
The positive signs are all there: Africa is home to the fastest-growing middle class in the world. Six out of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa, and economic growth is averaging around 5% across the continent. Democracy is now winning the long-standing battle in Africa. Whereas before, power was transferred with bullets, increasingly it now relies on the ballot box. In Commonwealth countries, the rule of law and constitutional set-up is largely based on the British system, and as we know, most trade in Africa relies on the English language. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, we must wake up to Africa’s serious economic potential and make improving trade relations with Africa a foreign policy priority.
Perhaps most important is the continuing issue of the trade deficit, particularly in respect of goods. We need to find new markets for British goods and to encourage firms that do not currently export to do so. We need a strategic and targeted approach. If the Government encourage the FCO, UKTI, the British Chambers of Commerce and other organisations to work together, we can reintroduce and rebrand Africa for the British business community.