U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit. Photo by: DFID / Michael Hughes / CC BY

LONDON — Civil society campaigners have raised concerns over the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit’s commitment to gender equality — despite the government’s claims it would be a key focus of the event — and to tackling climate change.

Backed by the U.K. Department for International Development, the summit was pitched as prioritizing the needs of women and girls while promoting trade and investment with the African continent.

“The attempt seems to be to make African women entrepreneurs, as if that is the silver bullet to addressing structural issues like gender inequality.”

— Sophie Efange, policy manager, Gender and Development Network

But women’s campaigners said the initiatives that came out of the summit sorely lacked focus on tackling the structural causes of gender inequality and poverty, compounding earlier accusations that African civil society organizations were excluded from the event.

Women’s groups had privately expressed their concerns to DFID about the direction the summit was taking as early as December and had called for greater inclusion and assurances that trade promotion with Africa would include safeguards for vulnerable groups.

Sophie Efange, policy manager at the Gender and Development Network, or GADN, said the lack of a poverty alleviation agenda was so serious that she wanted to see an inquiry by the U.K. Parliament’s aid watchdog, the International Development Committee.

“There’s a fundamental question about how DFID has been able to justify the spending for this summit when it hasn't been addressing key issues,” she said.

DFID set aside a budget of more than £15 million ($19.5 million) for Monday’s summit, where more than £6.5 billion worth of commercial deals were signed, including more than £1 billion in oil and gas deals in Tunisia and Kenya and the sale of £80 million worth of Airbus aircraft to Egypt, according to the government.

“Based on value, only a fraction of the deals publicised appear to be for renewable energy technologies, compared to billions of pounds in oil and gas deals agreed,” wrote Sarah Wykes, lead climate analyst at the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development, in an email.

“The government’s rhetoric about clean energy and climate action once again fails to match the reality of the financial flows going into fossil fuels,” she added.

Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of The ONE Campaign, said in a statement that “It is unclear how some of the deals struck — for instance those on extractives — will directly alleviate poverty.”

While opening the summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the U.K. government would stop supporting coal. However, U.K. official development assistance has not contributed to coal mining or power generation since 2012, and U.K. government export financing for coal-fired power stations ended in 2002.

When it came to gender, female entrepreneurs from African nations were given prominent speaking positions at the summit, and others pitched their businesses at an event run by the Department for International Trade the previous week.

Just ahead of the summit, DFID announced a £3.5 million expansion of its SheTrades program, providing training and improving access to business opportunities for female entrepreneurs in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana. It also claimed 3,000 more jobs would be created by the initiative.

Rachel George, senior research officer at the Overseas Development Institute think tank, welcomed the SheTrades program as “really exciting in that it’s looking at directly investing in women, and in that sense, it’s good for societies as a whole.”

“Investing in women’s economic empowerment is really good for more equal gender outcomes overall. … These investments are critical as a piece of wider gender equality programming,” she said.

But GADN’s Efange expressed concerns. “Overwhelmingly, the attempt seems to be to make African women entrepreneurs, as if that is the silver bullet to addressing structural issues like gender inequality,” she said.

“There’s no discussion about the quality of jobs being produced, there’s no metrics for measuring that. … It absolutely fails to address key structural issues that are fundamental for addressing gender equality,” she added.

The big announcement of the summit — CDC Group’s £2 billion, two-year commitment to invest in Africa, alongside $400 million worth of deals to support small- and medium-sized African businesses — had no targeted funds aimed at helping women.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport also announced that a selection of tech businesses from Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa working in finance, agriculture, health, and clean energy would be invited to join its Go Global Africa development program, and that it would host a networking and exchange program for African women.

Efange said these announcements were not “focused on addressing the concerns of the poorest people.” Others raised concerns about how the commercial deals struck at the summit were considered in terms of their impact on women.

In her statement, the ONE Campaign’s Greenhill said: “There are two sides of the coin to the Summit’s outcome, with both positives and negatives. On the one hand, it shows the [value] of DFID. ... They capitalised on their international reputation and relationships, bringing together [more than] 15 heads of state for a high-profile event. ...

“However, given that the Summit was largely funded by ODA, we would have liked to see greater emphasis on tackling poverty.”

A U.K. government spokesperson said in a statement: “The UK is a world leader on championing the rights of women and girls. This week’s UK-Africa Investment Summit is an example of how we prioritise gender equality in all our work.

“UK aid to support investment in Africa will create jobs and support the economic empowerment of women across the continent, helping to end poverty and build a future beyond aid.”

Update, Jan. 23: This story was updated to include a government response provided after publication.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.