British high commissioner on governance, trade and investment

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Newly-accredited British High Commissioner to Namibia, Jo Lomas, talks to Managing Editor Toivo Ndjebela about her country’s interest in Namibia and other issues.

You’ve been in Namibia since September. What’s your impression of the country so far?

I think it’s just a beautiful country. A very unique country in many ways. I think Namibia has a lot to be proud of. I come from Bosnia, where I was for four years, and there politicians are still very divided and are not really acting in the interest of the country and its people, but Namibia is a country which is very successful. It’s a success story of how you created a stable and secure country and when I look at what government is trying to achieve, you can see they want to genuinely achieve what’s best for their people. I’m very happy to be here and what I hope to do here is support the President [Hage Geingob] and the government’s agenda in terms of economic growth and helping Namibia wipe out poverty.

What was your reaction when you first heard you’d be posted to Namibia?

Very happy, very happy. Just as background, the way our system works is that we choose to go to countries. We bid actively to go to them, and so I chose to bid for Namibia. It’s always a competitive process – luckily I won the internal competition. I did a lot of homework on Namibia, even before I was interviewed. Interestingly, when it was announced that I am coming I got a lot of congratulatory messages through emails, texts and so forth. Hundred percent of my colleagues who visited Namibia said: “You’re gonna love it.” They love what this country has to offer. So far they have been proved right.

What’s your overall impression of the Namibia-UK relations and where can they be improved?

We’ve got good links in terms of trade and investment. We also have educational links. We have quite a lot of Namibians who have studied or are studying in the UK. We’ve got parliamentary links, we’ve got political links, that’s why we are active in the security sector. We speak a common language. We are members of the Commonwealth, the president is expected to attend a Commonwealth summit later this week and he’s off to London the following week. There’s more that we need to do in terms of trade and investment. I think politically we have a couple of good things we are doing with Namibia. One is in the security sector – so we’ve just had a mental health specialist from the police, training some prison guards. Previously we’ve worked with the Namibian police on community policing.

What I’d like to see more on the political front is Namibia selling its success story. The former president [Hifikepunye Pohamba] just accepted his Mo Ibrahim award last weekend in Ghana – and that’s a great story. Namibia is a great example to many countries on this continent, which is a good story to tell. The country needs to take a hardline stance on certain issues and be heard.

Why is it so hard for leaders, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, to grant audience to leaders of small nations like ours – like next week when President Geingob visits London?

I don’t think Namibia is doing anything wrong. Namibia is a small country in population size, but perhaps what’s relevant is that it doesn’t cause any worries. With the British government there are so many difficult security issues going on around the world, including on this continent. The fact that it does not have to worry about the position of Namibia is a positive thing. I appreciate that sometimes there’s a need for that kind of attention, but this comes back to what I said earlier about Namibia selling its story. Namibia could be there – whether it’s at the UN or peacekeeping missions and set an example. It is sometimes difficult to get our ministers interested in countries that pose little problems to them, but they try to create space to meet at international fora with their counterparts from elsewhere in the world. We don’t take our friendship for granted.

In what areas can the relationship between Namibia and the UK improved?

I think one area is around what Namibia has to offer on the world stage. We have to work with Namibia on that. I think the other is around working hard on trade and investment. There’s good long-term British investment extractives and oil and gas. I think our record is quite good and I think British firms understand what Namibia is trying to achieve. They understand the need to upscale Namibian staff and make sure that the majority of their employees are Namibian. I do want to see more [investment], both ways, and I am sensing renewed interest in Namibia from the UK, because you’ve got lots of ambitious projects going on. Up to now there’s been interest in extractives, but with plans for Walvis Bay [port expansion], improving roads and railways, improvement of airports and airport security – there are a lot of things that we are good at and which we can help Namibia with.

What is your impression of trade between the two countries?

I’d say the trade is healthy. In 2013 trade between the two countries was worth N$3 billion, and that’s healthy. One way that would improve things is for Namibia to move its way up the Business Index. British companies like investing here, because it’s so much easier than many other countries on the continent. Having said that, there is more that could be done to attract more investment, and it’s really about having a clear and transparent framework, guidelines, making sure that British businesses know where they stand and how decisions are going to be made – that there would be no surprises. None of that is difficult, but it’s all about setting our framework.

How are political relations between the two countries – in your view?

I think the relations are very good. We don’t always have the same position on the international stage and that’s not uncommon. We respect Namibia’s position. We have good discussions at Commonwealth about democracy and human rights. The relations are so good, I don’t have any tough messages. It’s really about what I think Namibia could do to sell itself more.

Where does Namibia fit into British foreign policy?

We obviously have some differences when it comes to Namibia’s position on non-interference, but we respect that. I think there is a role for Namibia to be a mediator. The country can also play a crucial role on the world stage when it comes to peacekeeping. The UK is always willing to help countries who are ready to do that. One area I am ready to work on with Namibia is on the president’s openness and transparency agenda. When I met him last week I asked him if Namibia would be willing to join the Open Government Partnership, which is basically a voluntary international organisation, with 70 members who basically agree to open up information and agree to work with civil society on a whole range of government issues. Kenya and Tanzania have joined, South Africa is a founder member.

What it means is that when governments open up, they can deliver better services to the people, because people would find out what they are entitled to. There’s usually less corruption and it’s a better business environment. I hope the president will give it the oomph it needs to tie in with his own approach to transparency.

What can Namibia learn from the UK in terms of poverty alleviation?

A government needs to provide for its poor and vulnerable people. Beyond that, a government must focus on incentivising people to get the right education and get a job. The real focus for the UK is that you cannot get people out of poverty if you cannot create jobs and cannot get people to work if your economy is not growing. That’s the number one priority. If you can grow your economy and upscale your people, then poverty will be arrested. Without economic growth you just won’t be able to fight poverty. Your president here understands that very well and we saw the long-term and short-term solutions he’s trying to pursue.

What are your views on Africa’s over-reliance on foreign aid instead of trade?

International aid clearly has its role, including for emergencies. British aid is designed specifically to support governments that are genuinely acting in the best interest of their people. For us it’s not just about handing out parcels of food, it’s also about growing the economy so that in the long-term such countries would not be dependent on aid.

How can governance be improved in Namibia?

This goes back to my comments earlier about setting a transparency agenda. Namibia has one strong ruling party, Swapo. There are a lot of benefit to that, but the downside of that is that people in power might not feel the need to consult that much. But actually Namibia needs to do that more, otherwise you won’t get alternative views. Consultation is important, because if people know what they can expect and if they know what they can demand, and if you create the climate where business and civil society feel comfortable, it’s a win-win for everybody. It’s really about making sure that decisions are consultative and open, taking into account the views of others. That would make you a stronger country.

What’s your take on Rio Tinto’s majority stake in Rössing and the calls for Namibia to increase its stake in this British-owned company?

A government anywhere has to be careful, because there’s a fine line. We understand Namibia’s quest to have its key resources owned by it, but they need to be careful not to scare away foreign investors. I’m not saying it’s happening here, but elsewhere where foreign companies were grabbed, it turned out to be a disaster. There’s no right or wrong answer, but if government is to go into that conversation, that’s some of the things it should consider, because one poor decision could scare away other investors and that’s bad for the economy. In the case of Rössing, they have paid hundreds of millions in taxes and royalties. More than 98 percent of their employees are Namibian. They have done a lot for communities and are not a fly-by-night employer. The country needs to ensure that it remains attractive for foreign investment.

What are your views about the competition between China and the West in Africa, Namibia included?

Fair competition is a good thing. We are not in competition with the Chinese. Here they are mostly involved in physical infrastructure development, while the British offer professional services, such as project design, management, access to finance and so forth. We see ourselves as the global finance capital of the world and we can compete with anyone on a level playing field.

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