Britain’s new High Commissioner to Namibia Kate Airey OBE talks to Managing Editor Toivo Ndjebela about her country’s agenda in Namibia and the legacy she craves to leave at the end of her posting here, amongst other issues.
Toivo Ndjebela (TN): Welcome to Namibia. What is your impression of the country thus far?
Kate Airey: I was in London prior to arriving in Namibia and I was amazed by the country’s wide open spaces and the beautiful sunshine here. It tells you just how crowded London is. I was also amazed by your small population, which I think is a real opportunity. But also as a female leader, I was particulary taken aback by the representation of women in many areas of leadership and I think Namibia has a lot to teach the world in this regard – notwithstanding some gender issues here such as gender-based violence.
TN: Did it surprise you then that a country with such small population and vast last land has unemployment and access to land as one of its most burning issues?
KA: I wasn’t necessarily surprised. I’ve worked in Africa for a long time and I’m familiar with the historical background to this. I know that government here is looking at addressing inequality, which is a welcome move. I’ll be a very interested observer in how Namibia tackles these difficult issues. Namibia has a good GDP per capita ratio, which puts it in the middle-income countries bracket, but when you look beneath the surface you’d see that inequality is really high.
TN: Do you then agree with President Hage Geingob who often scoffed at Namibia’s classification as an upper middle income country, therefore disadvantaging the country in many ways?
KA: I think the President has been consistent on that and the more he explains the disparities and inequalities in the country, the more he is likely to succeed in what he is trying to achieve on that front. As a major donor – and Namibia receives a lot of such assistance from the UK and UN agencies – there’s no doubt that our assistance will continue.
TN: Does having worked extensively in Africa make your secondment to Namibia an easier assignment?
KA: I think it does. The continent shares a lot in common – a burgeoning young population, entrepreneurial spirit, a wealth of resources. Those are big opportunities especially from a trade point of view. So having worked extensively in Africa, especially in West Africa, I’m not only bringing a British perspective but also my experience on what, in the true Africa context, could work and what wouldn’t. It’s a hugely diverse continent and appreciating that would only benefit our bilateral relations.
TN: British broadcasting network Sky News this week had a screaming headline: “Royals set for ‘Brexit charm offensive’ at Commonwealth leaders meeting”. How would Brexit affect, if at all, Namibia/UK relations?
KA: For us Brexit is a real opportunity for the UK’s global role and in charting our own ways in the global context. In relation to Namibia we see trade and growing as some of the many opportunities presented by Brexit. We can deepen our bilateral ties and it’s good to see His Excellency [Geingob] being in London this week for the Commonwealth meetings.
TN: With Britain leaving the EU, why is Commonwealth still a relevant bloc?
KA: The Commonwealth is a real opportunity for its members. For example, the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting [CHOGM] taking place this week and at which Namibia is represented at the highest level, is a great platform. The Commonwealth has 53 member states, all of whom have an equal voice. It gives leaders an opportunity to speak to one another. Namibia is a very valued member of the Commonwealth and I hope President Geingob feels this way during his stay there. We have a shared legal system, shared language, shared business platforms – so it’s a great platform. This year’s meeting will focus on some of the major things such as climate change, which Namibia is very passionate about. The use of plastics would be extensively discussed.
TN: What else will be under discussion at this year’s event?
KA: Apart from climate change, which will be one of the biggest topics under discussion, there will be talks on trade, quality of education, youth empowerment issues and so many other topics.
TN: What legacy would you like to leave in Namibia when your term ends?
KA: I think I’m very fortunate because the UK-Namibia relations are actually very, very strong. They are built on a very strong foundation, which embraces values of strong democracy, respect for human rights, and free press, which by the way are the Commonwealth values. With this already in place, improving on this would be a daunting task. I’d like to leave a legacy of a very solid partnership on the things where we share a common agenda such as climate change. Namibia is an important voice on this subject. I also want to leave a legacy of strong trade. Also close to our hearts is good governance. Transparency is a very important aspect of UK policy and we’re always willing to help in this regard. If I could leave a legacy around these issues, I’d be very happy.
TN: How’s trade between Namibia and the UK at the moment and what’s the monetary value of this?
KA: It’s quite difficult to determine the figures because trade is monthly conducted through the SACU bloc. What we know, though, is that there are significant exports of Namibian beef and grapes. Also, I hear that Namibian charcoal exported to the UK is of extremely good quality. In Namibia, there are many British companies operating here. Africa’s development rests on healthy growth in terms of trade. Making Namibia a gateway to this region is an incredibly attractive proposition, so is breaking trade barriers. Southern Africa is a vibrant growing market and Namibia is a gateway to that.
TN: Globally, the West and East are entangled in a fight for economic dominance. Is there such competition here locally between the UK and China and what’s your take on that?
KA: That’s an old-fashioned view of the world – that there are nations competing for Africa. It’s not a turf war. That time is long gone. True, British companies want to do business here but our interest is transparency in bidding processes. Namibia’s Public Procurement Act is a progressive, forward-looking piece of legislation which creates a levelled playing field for all and that’s great. Namibia must continue to decide its own growth path and the UK would like to remain a key strategic partner in such choices.