Britain will use its international aid budget to boost its own interests while seeking to deepen trade ties with Africa, Prime Minister Theresa May said, countering critics who say aid funds would be better spent at home.
May, battling to unite her divided Conservative Party over her plan to take Britain out of the European Union, is visiting South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya on her first official trip to the continent.
In a speech in Cape Town, May said she wanted Britain to become the biggest investor in Africa of the Group of Seven nations, overtaking the United States, by using the aid budget to help British companies invest on the continent.
Government has held out the prospect of increased trade with non-European Union countries as a major selling point of Brexit as it prepares to leave the bloc, currently its biggest trading partner, next March.
In April, Britain hosted a meeting of Commonwealth countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, seeking to reinvigorate the network of mostly former colonies and drum up new trade amongst its members.
May recommitted to maintaining the overall British aid budget at 0.7% of economic output but said she would use it in a way that helped Britain.
“I am unashamed about the need to ensure our aid programme works for the UK,” May said.
“Today I am committing that our development spending will not only combat extreme poverty, but tackle global challenges and support our own national interest.”
Britain’s overseas aid last year was 13.9 billion pounds ($18 billion). The budget has come under fire from many of May’s own lawmakers, who say it is too high and should be spent elsewhere or in Britain itself.
May, accompanied by a delegation of British business executives, said Britain would work with African states to tackle insecurity and migration by creating jobs.
“It is in the world’s interest to see jobs are created, to tackle the causes and symptoms of extremism and instability, to deal with migration flows and to encourage clean growth,” May said.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, British direct investment in Africa was 43 billion pounds ($55.5 billion) in 2016, compared to 44 billion pounds ($56.7 billion) from the United States.
Investment from France, with close ties to its former colonies in West Africa, stood at 38 billion pounds ($49 billion). China, rapidly becoming a major player in Africa, has invested 31 billion pounds (40 billion).
Britain was South Africa’s sixth largest global trading partner last year, with total trade at 79.5 billion rand ($5.6 billion), the South African president’s office said.
Under the banner of creating a “Global Britain” Trade Minister Liam Fox, a Brexit proponent, cited International Monetary Fund research stating 90% of global growth in coming years will be generated outside the EU.
May said Britain supported South Africa’s land reform programme, provided it is carried out legally. She would discuss the issue with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“The UK has for some time now supported land reform. Land reform that is legal, that is transparent, that is generated through a democratic process,” May said in response to a reporter’s question.
Last week South Africa accused US President Donald Trump of stoking racial divisions after he asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to study South African “land and farm seizures” and the “killing of farmers”.