LONDON — Aid advocates were set to protest outside the British government’s much-vaunted U.K.-Africa Investment Summit on Monday, with some civil society organizations saying they have been excluded from the event amid concerns over its transparency and focus on trade.
The summit has been organized by the Department for International Development, the government department responsible for poverty reduction and development. According to the government’s data portal, the summit is costing more than £15 million ($19.5 million), with DFID footing the bill. The amount includes £11 million to host the summit and £4.5 million for “technical assistance” in the lead up to the event, including helping countries prepare to showcase key investment opportunities. DFID did not confirm the figures when asked.
“The betterment of these economies has an impact on the citizens of Africa, so it's a little bit strange … that representation of the citizenry is not at the table.”— Crystal Simeoni, head of advocacy and economic justice, FEMNET
According to the U.K. government, the event — hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and expected to have a number of heads of state in attendance — brings together “businesses, governments and international institutions to showcase and promote the breadth and quality of investment opportunities across Africa. The Summit will strengthen the UK’s partnership with African nations to build a secure and prosperous future for all our citizens. It will mobilise new and substantial investment to create jobs and boost mutual prosperity.”
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The agenda includes sessions on trade and investment, sustainable finance and infrastructure, clean energy transformation, and African growth sectors.
But civil society figures said the summit has ignored African NGOs while welcoming the private sector. In particular, Devex understands that the guest list includes several representatives of the oil and gas industry, despite a recent government pledge to make U.K. aid more climate-friendly.
Crystal Simeoni, head of advocacy and economic justice at the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, or FEMNET, said her organization was among those hoping to attend but had not been invited. FEMNET’s areas of focus include investment, economic policy, and public-private partnerships — “all the things we believe the summit will be covering,” she told Devex.
“The meeting will be discussing investment and partnerships with African countries and purports to have impact on livelihoods and better economies in African countries. The betterment of these economies has an impact on the citizens of Africa, so it's a little bit strange … that representation of the citizenry is not at the table. That is very, very strange,” she said.
Although leaders from some U.K. NGOs will be at the summit, DFID did not respond to a question about whether any African civil society organizations had been invited. Some U.K. NGOs had also been trying to share their allocated spaces with African peers to improve representation.
Nick Dearden, director at equality campaign group Global Justice Now, said it was “absolutely staggering” that African civil society groups were apparently not invited to what is ostensibly a development summit. “This is purely a discussion between African leaders and business,” he said. “The voices that might be arguing for some of the problems in this approach are just not in the room.”
There were also complaints about a lack of available information about the event and its attendees, including which heads of state and private sector representatives would be there.
“Not many [civil society organizations] on the continent actually know it’s happening,” Simeoni said. “So it's hard for them to hold their governments attending to account and question what conversations they were having and what partnerships they were going into.”
Matti Kohonen, principal private sector adviser to U.K. charity Christian Aid, said: “We’d like more accountability and transparency. They should have made a better announcement on the objectives and said who’s coming and for what purpose we’re spending ODA [official development assistance].”
In December 2019, protesters attempting to draw attention to the gap between the urgency of climate action and the pace of negotiations were removed from the COP25 venue and given no information about whether they would be allowed back in.
Concerns were also raised over what the summit’s emphasis on the private sector could mean for the direction of U.K. aid, at a time when DFID is struggling to make the case for its survival.
“The social contract between state and citizen is sort of being broken down and morphing into a contract between state and private sector, facilitated by countries like the U.K.,” Simeoni said.
“It brings into question what priorities are set,” she said. “If a maternal health facility isn’t profitable, does it mean that it's off the table and no investment shall be done there?”
There were also anxieties about the types of industries and investments that could form part of the U.K.’s new Africa strategy, which includes an ambition to become the biggest G-7 investor on the continent by 2022.
“If the U.K. is aiming for a numerical — rather than quality — increase in investment, that is my concern,” Kohonen said.
“From what we can see, the new direction is about prioritizing the needs of British investors, British business including the City of London, over what we would call genuine development in Africa — concerns for reducing poverty, inequality, and so forth,” Dearden added.
While civil society organizations were eager to welcome investment in Africa, they stressed it should be done responsibly.
“If the U.K. government is serious about its commitment to global SDGs and wants to be compliant with the basic rules of ODA, then [the] Africa Investment Summit is an opportunity for the U.K. to stand out among the top investors in Africa — focusing on investment that is sustainable, transparent, socially responsible, ethical, and serving the needs of the poorest,” said Sandra Martinsone, policy manager at Bond, the U.K. network for NGOs.
DFID had not responded to a request for comment on these concerns by the time of publication.