Building and maintaining global relationships, especially for the purposes of international development, is something the United Kingdom prides itself on. The UK has a history of providing aid to countries around the world, but also in facilitating capacity building and providing support for governments that lack the resources to develop themselves. The UK’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, will have to ensure that their foreign policy agenda is selective when it comes to developing relationships.
The balance of global regimes is shifting towards autocracy. The last year marked the lowest levels of international democracy seen in thirty years, and it seems unlikely to be an outlier. With this trend, an increasing number of countries in the developing world are heading in the direction of autocratic governance that veer away from democratic ideals. The risks of establishing and strengthening relationships with these countries, however, are high. Not only does it strengthen the regime’s hold on their countries to gain official support and recognition, but being associated with countries that are undemocratic also damages the UK’s reputation. In the interest of facilitating the spread of democracy as well as reputational self-interest, the UK’s new Prime Minister must ensure that the relationships they choose to develop cannot be exploited or manipulated into a political risk.
Former Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Liz Truss’s appointment at the start of the month to the highest office in the UK and her experience with foreign affairs only underscores this international development angle. Her stance so far on the United Kingdom’s foreign policy has been to build a “network of liberty” with allies around the world who will work together to fight for and support democracy. Her aggressive stance on foreign policy and her desire for a “perpetual Brexit” are cornerstones to her international agenda, and with the power of the Prime Minster’s office, she is likely to turn her focus to developing and fortifying this network.
Her international development agenda also leaves a lot to be desired, with many charities criticising it as a missed opportunity and as a “neo-colonial approach to aid spending”. International aid distribution is already an important issue, with countries like the Seychelles and Rwanda providing case studies of the possible shortfalls of this type of relationship-building. The government of the Seychelles is undergoing a negative transformation with the leadership of President Wavel Ramkalawan. Elected in 2020 on a platform of cleaning up corruption and drugs, Ramkalawan had been heralded as a wave of change for the small island nation. The President’s landmark action so far has been a national corruption trial to persecute those responsible for the alleged embezzling of part of $50 million worth of aid money. The instigation of this trial set new expectations with the international community that under this government, Seychelles will move towards greater economic strength and become a safe and secure destination for aid and foreign direct investments.
As this trial progresses, however, aspects of it from prisoner treatment to the credibility of evidence are showing a different side to Ramkalawan’s government. Complaints about prisoner treatment from those detained by the government revealed that their detention facilities did not meet human rights standards, and only after the Seychelles Human Rights Commission investigated did the government promise to make changes. The Seychelles constitution was amended after the corruption trial began, in order to expand the government’s power to conduct the trial in the style they wanted. The anti-corruption body in the Seychelles has been accused of intimidation by the defence lawyers, and the detainees were placed on no-fly lists despite posing minimal security risks. Several detainees have also consistently been denied bail, despite the government admitting that concrete evidence in their cases is lacking. While all of this continues to take place, the European Union is providing €300,000 for an anti-corruption project in Seychelles, intended to build capacity with technical aid and national awareness.
The other case is Rwanda, the poster child for international development projects. It is a clean, organised and efficient state, transformed from a country disfigured by genocide to one of the most orderly in Africa, all under the helm of President Paul Kagame, who receives endless praise from Western leaders for his incredible successes. Economically, the country is strong, and international aid is well invested with a visible impact. His regime and governance style, however, are clearly autocratic. He shuffles his security team constantly so as not to allow a military coup; he has advisors beaten over disagreements; his current term lasts until 2034, and he may change the constitution again to further extend it. With so much evidence of the improvements he has made, however, President Kagame remains a respected and well-liked leader in the international community.
It is clear to see that the firm governance of leaders like Ramkalawan and Kagame, coupled with aid funding, has allowed these countries to transform. This governance, however, comes at a cost and national leaders cannot continue to ignore that. The risk of developing relationships with autocratic countries is that as the economy improves, the leader’s credibility amongst his people increases and his international legitimacy grows. This reinforces his belief in his actions and expands his ability to act as he sees fit without repercussions.
The new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom plays a crucial role not only in the future of the UK, but also in the future development of the global south. Developing and establishing international relationships is a difficult and intricate task, and must be done with the utmost care. Economic development is not the only hallmark of growth and prosperity for a country – social issues, equality and human rights are all equally important. The pursuit of economic growth and democracy cannot come at the expense of human rights, and the UK has a duty as an international leader to ensure it plays no part in encouraging or supporting leaders that do not share these values.