Theo Clarke is a member of the International Development Select Committee, and is MP for Stafford.
It has been three and a half years since the Commonwealth Heads of State summit in London on those sunny days in April 2018. In that short space of time, and despite the ravages of Covid, the UK has been busy transforming trade right across the Commonwealth. From Ottawa to Mumbai, from Kampala to Canberra, Global Britain is making trade cheaper, easier and faster. And the best part is that we have only just begun.
This week, I visited the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, and met Commonwealth Ambassadors from Australia, South Africa, Nigeria and Jamaica to name a few, as well as the new WTO Director General, Dr Okonjo-Iweala Ngozi.
With the UK retaking our seat as an independent member at the WTO, there was a real buzz about the way we are re-galvanising trade right across the Commonwealth’s huge market of 2.5 billion people.
Since the Commonwealth London summit, the UK has championed the launch of the Connectivity Agenda across the entire Commonwealth, and signed new trade deals with more than a dozen countries in Africa; all across the Caribbean and the Pacific; and with Canada and Australia.
Next on the to-do list for our new Secretary of State for Trade, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, will be to expand these deals to cover new topics like financial services and e-commerce, whilst negotiating the next wave of Commonwealth trade deals with India and New Zealand.
So we have succeeded in signing trade deals with big African economies like Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, but what about other Commonwealth developing countries where we don’t yet have trade deals?
To make sure they were not left out, in January 2021 the Government launched our own preference system to cover imports to the UK from those countries. In many cases, the scheme reduces tariffs to zero on products made in the poorest countries like Sierra Leone, Bangladesh or Zambia. This scheme secures both millions of jobs in Commonwealth Africa and Asia and supply-chains of clothing, tea, coffee, fruit and vegetables for UK consumers. It is a pathway for these countries to graduate beyond aid, and to trade their way out of poverty. The Government is now looking to improve the scheme further, so the UK can set the standard for the rest of the G7 to follow.
But transforming trade in the Commonwealth takes more than just signing trade deals and reducing tariffs. Here again, Global Britain is leading the way, leveraging the world-class capabilities in the UK’s aid programme led by Liz Truss at FCDO. In East and Southern Africa, for example, the UK is leading a coalition of countries, including G7 members like the US and Canada, in an Aid for Trade initiative to slash trade red-tape and upgrade ports and transport corridors from Ethiopia right down to Mozambique.
In Uganda, TradeMark East Africa’s work to digitize customs procedures and make them paperless has reduced the time to clear a container from four days to just three hours. And I have seen for myself on the Northern Corridor linking Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, how it used to take 20 days to get a truck from Mombasa port to Kampala.
Now thanks to TradeMark East Africa, this has been reduced to six days or fewer, saving thousands of dollars on every truck journey. Transformational reforms like these which bring down the costs of international trade are win-win, and benefit UK businesses like Unilever, GEC, JCB or Diageo trading in African markets as much as businesses and entrepreneurs in Kenya, Uganda or Rwanda.
Despite all its fanfare, these are the kinds of impacts that China’s Belt and Road initiative can only dream of achieving, but which the UK’s Integrated Review is starting to realise. And by working in partnership with our Commonwealth family and an international coalition, Global Britain has achieved these impacts at a fraction of the cost of China’s huge loans to African countries. The next stage will be to expand the TradeMark initiative to other countries in Africa, like Ghana and Nigeria for example, helping join-up a fast-growing single market across the Continent, now the world’s largest trade bloc with 50 countries and 1 billion consumers.
Last but by no means least, the trade transformation that Global Britain is leading across the Commonwealth is also making inroads towards wider social goals like economic empowerment of women in developing countries. In 2018, the UK launched the Commonwealth SheTrades initiative, targeting thousands of women entrepreneurs, helping them to export for the first time. Commonwealth SheTrades is led by the International Trade Centre in Geneva, and this week I met with Executive Director, Pamela Coke-Hamilton, and heard for myself the results the programme has achieved with UK support, and the plans to scale-up and empower thousands more women in the Commonwealth through trade.
With the Prime Minister’s new Cabinet in place, now is the time to raise our ambition even further and turbo charge the Commonwealth as an engine for shared prosperity through trade, delivering on our Global Britain mission, and building back better from the coronavirus pandemic.