Britain needs Africa's help

David Cameron steps on to the global political catwalk.

A woman walks along a disused railway track in Sudan
Railways could open up opportunity to the wide, forgotten expanses of Africa. Photograph: Getty Images

This summer, David Cameron steps on to the global political catwalk, left foot as UN maestro of the Millennium Development Goals and right foot navigating the euro crisis as a G8 boss. He will learn that, to avoid stumbling in world politics, right foot follows left; that by resolving African poverty, he can solve his own local economic crisis. Seven years ago, I set up Made in Africa with the lawyer Chris Cleverly and a Ugandan prince, Hassan Kimbugwe, to look at ways to kick-start growth across the continent based on enterprise, rather than aid. The prognosis was poor. UK industry was only interested in what it could get out of Africa, rather than what it could put in, and Africa’s leaders were not much better. We co-hosted the African Union state banquet in 2007 with Ghana’s then president, John Kufuor. It marked 50 years of Ghana’s independence and 200 years of Wilberforce’s antislave- trade legislation. Supported by Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and Herbie Hancock, we laid out a vision of what Africa could be: a vision of ample food, clean water and lights that never went out; of railways across the continent’s vast expanses; of homes worthy of the name and lives worth living. The audience of all 53 African heads of state rose to its feet and applauded. I was hugged by many a ruler since damned by history. Then that was it. We went back to the near-impossible task of introducing ethical African opportunities to UK businesses, while the politicians carried on as normal. Despite them, powered by a global commodity boom and the rise of mass wireless telephony, sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP grew annually at 5 per cent on average, silently and unseen. In January 2009, I was invited to Chequers by Gordon Brown. It was at the height of the financial crisis. I was unsure why I was there. The other guests included Alistair Darling, then chancellor of the Exchequer, Mervyn Davies of Standard Chartered, Eric Daniels of Lloyds Banking Group, Baroness Vadera and Marcus Agius, chairman of Barclays. The conversation was focused on Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers and the role of the banks in getting us into and out of the crisis.

Those dining professed that it was a global Armageddon, rather than the beginning of a drawn-out but profound relocation of wealth away from the tertiary nations that over-borrowed to buy goods from manufacturing countries such as India and China. Gordon conjectured that wealthwould finally flow to the places where wealth was primarily formed, such as Africa, as it had already done in the oil-rich Middle East. As Sarah showed the others round the Elizabethan mansion, we discussed the role of Africa, untainted as it was by the fallen globalised debt structure. Sub- Saharan Africa would need to be galvanised by big infrastructure if it was to crystallise its unvalued trillion-dollar assets of talent, commodities and land. If Britain helped to create this wealth in partnership with Africa, then this could lead Britain out of debt.

Yet such ideas at the time were considered frivolous, in the face of Little England’s calls for austerity and retrenchment. However, Gordon encouraged Made in Africa in its advocacy for a trans-Saharan railway linking the fast-growing oil economies of Ghana and Libya and opening up opportunity to the wide, forgotten expanses of Burkina Faso and Niger. The railway had once made the prairies of the American Midwest and the Siberian steppes economically viable and the Sahel would be no different. And if Britain helped support and build it, it would rebuild and rebrand its own industries. The designer establishes the vision. The tailor has to measure up to it. As Brown led the G20 London summit, he had to grab on to more immediate palliatives; dreams of Africa and Britain growing together were shelved temporarily. After Labour lost the election, the initiative slipped from the government’s view, despite Cameron’s personal interest. The only way out of this crisis is not to reduce public spending but to increase our industrial and commercial earnings. We have to trade our way out by selling more things. And the way we increase our earnings is through exports. The countries that want to buy more, including those in Africa, have lower credit ratings, which makes the financing of large-scale projects very difficult. To export to these burgeoning but low-credit-rated countries, our government has to provide guarantees or insurance to finance targeted export packages of British construction and industrial businesses. It is that simple. When you design a plan for the future, it can be based on dystopianor utopian instincts. Public spending cuts and the subsequent seizure of the British body commercial show that when we look inwards, Britain fails. It is an island but one that succeeds when it looks outwards, like those first Elizabethans – although, this time, Britain will come as a partner, not a coloniser.

Ozwald Boateng is a British fashion designer and founder of the charity Made in Africa.