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This paper asks what factors have helped or hindered the UK in pursuing a ‘Global Britain’ agenda in Ethiopia. The paper also tests common assertions around the effects of Brexit, reductions in the UK aid budget, and the merger of two government departments, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Since 2016, successive British governments have sought to emphasise that a post-Brexit UK would be outward-looking, collaborative and influential. A series of speeches and policy statements have emphasised the pursuit of prosperity and an intention to capitalise on previous investments in overseas aid, trade, defence and diplomacy. In March 2021, the UK government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The document reiterated these themes and referenced East Africa for increased UK engagement.
Against this backdrop, a RUSI research team has set out to examine how the UK has deployed its development, defence and diplomacy toolkit in four countries in East Africa in support of this agenda. The project, entitled ‘Furthering Global Britain? Reviewing the Foreign Policy Effect of UK Engagement in East Africa’, asks what factors have helped or hindered the UK in pursuing a ‘Global Britain’ agenda in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. The research also tests some common assertions around the effects of Brexit, reductions in the UK aid budget, and the merger of two government departments, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) into the Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO).
This paper sets out the research findings on the UK’s relevant engagements in Ethiopia, focusing on 2015 to the present. It finds that the UK has made some limited progress on aspects of its foreign policy agenda in the country. Examples can be found of UK action contributing towards positive outcomes, including through forging partnerships; combining defence, diplomacy and development aid; and pursuing trade and prosperity agendas.
The analysis suggests, however, that the UK has indeed been constrained by a number of internal factors: smaller and unpredictable budgets; the unplanned merger of the FCO and DFID; the absence of a detailed strategy for Ethiopia; and weaknesses with leadership. And while the UK is still regarded as a capable and relevant actor, with skilled personnel and a measure of influence in certain areas, the overall picture is one of diminished status. Aid cuts are a factor. Losing the DFID brand has also been a net negative. Leaving the EU has not presented insurmountable practical difficulties, but it is seen by many as diminishing UK influence.
The overriding limiting factor for UK action in Ethiopia in recent years has, however, been a worsening operating context since a change in Ethiopia’s leadership in 2018. Initial hopes for reform and greater openness have been dashed by a series of political decisions, and the devastating war in Tigray. A severe drought across the Horn of Africa has accentuated these difficulties. Widespread insecurity, hunger and violence have resulted. Decades of socioeconomic progress, achieved in part through close partnership with the UK, have been reversed. These events have upended Ethiopia’s relationship with the outside world, and the country’s trajectory is uncertain.
Despite tensions and challenges, the UK has successfully maintained relationships with a range of actors through its work in Ethiopia. It has also adapted to events and made positive contributions, even with reduced resources. The UK’s future strategy and approach should reflect lessons learned on the nature of the Ethiopian state, the sources and limitations of influence, and the UK’s particular contribution.
Senior Research Fellow, African Security