Throwing salt on ‘the scar of Africa’

Tony Blair's Commission for Africa Report is a recipe for further underdevelopment.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

Africa’s situation is so dire that any extra assets would be welcomed. Yet the proposals in the Commission for Africa Report, chaired by UK prime minister Tony Blair, are likely to do more harm than good (1).

On the surface the report seems to be a good thing. It often uses the language of humanism and self-determination, and seems to be saying that Africa should be free to shape its destiny and the world should be willing to help. It also suggests that Africa should be given an extra $25billion (£13billion) a year in aid from 2010, a write-off of its debt and a better deal in relation to trade.

So the widespread welcome given to the report is understandable. The only reservation seemed to be that the report’s recommendations might not be implemented. This, for example, was the concern raised by South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki (2). Others, such as the Make Poverty History campaign, welcomed the report but argued it should go further still (3).

However, despite the report’s self-consciously ambitious rhetoric, it is imbued with low horizons about what Africa should strive to achieve. Even worse, the new ‘partnership’ that it proposes between Africa and the West is likely to weaken African states still further. New monitoring mechanisms, ostensibly designed to strengthen state ‘capacity’, will instead undermine it.

Blair has long used the language of altruism and humanism to describe Africa’s plight. Back in 2001 he famously told the Labour Party conference that: ‘The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it.’ (4) Similar language is used in the Commission for Africa Report: ‘Why must the world act? First and foremost, our common humanity binds us together. Africa is part of our world community and the world must show solidarity with the people of Africa. Common humanity and solidarity demand that we all work together to overcome poverty, despair and death in Africa.’ (5) Blair boasts about the grand scale of his vision on Africa, lauding ‘the ambition and scope of the report’ in his Guardian article on the subject (6).

Yet on closer examination the report’s horizons are limited. It seems to dismiss the notion that Africa should strive to catch up with the developed world, which it sees as out of line with African culture. It goes on to argue that: ‘An understanding of the cultures of Africa shows that development means putting a greater emphasis on increasing human dignity within a community.’ (7) So, in the name of having an authentic African perspective, it endorses a feeble definition of development. The basic humanist notion that everyone should have access to the best that society has to offer is sneered at as ‘catching up’. Blair’s report also seems unaware of the key lesson of the Asian experience of recent decades: that ambitious development is the best way of eradicating poverty.

The limited horizons of the Commission for Africa Report are also apparent in its endorsement of the Millennium Development Goals. These are official development goals endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, which have also become central to the mission statement of Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) (8). Yet, as I have previously argued on spiked, even if these objectives are achieved by their target date of 2015 the world will still be a long way from eliminating poverty (9). There will still be hundreds of millions of people living on less than a dollar a day, hundreds of millions living in hunger, and malaria and HIV/AIDS will still kill millions (10).

A further clue to the real meaning of New Labour’s rhetoric on Africa comes from UK chancellor Gordon Brown – a member of the Commission for Africa and a leading figure in the area in his own right. Brown has said that after his visit to Africa in January 2005 his spats with Blair, which he called the ‘personality issue’, seemed less important (11). He also said that Britain should no longer apologise for its colonial past and that missionaries had come to Africa out of a sense of duty (12).

Brown seems to suggest that the issue of Africa has helped to give New Labour a sense of moral purpose. When politics in Britain has little meaning, the focus on Africa can help to give the government a sense of mission. It is this that explains the evangelical zeal with which Labour has pursued the question of Africa in recent years.

Of course, it could be argued that none of this would matter if Africa benefited from the developed world’s largesse. More resources could benefit Africa whatever the motivations of the donors. Sadly what is being proposed in the Blair Commission report is likely to make Africa’s plight even worse.

The outline of the new ‘partnership’ that the Blair Commission is proposing was already apparent in the prime minister’s speech to the Labour Party conference in 2001: ’On our side: provide more aid, untied to trade; write off debt; help with good governance and infrastructure; training to the soldiers, with UN blessing, in conflict resolution; encouraging investment; and access to our markets so that we practise the free trade we are so fond of preaching.

‘But it’s a deal: on the African side: true democracy, no more excuses for dictatorship, abuses of human rights; no tolerance of bad governance, from the endemic corruption of some states, to the activities of Mr Mugabe’s henchmen in Zimbabwe. Proper commercial, legal and financial systems.’ In the Commission for Africa Report this perspective is spelt out more fully. It argues that, in return for the promise of greater resources, African states must open themselves up more to monitoring by external authorities. The operations of state and business will be subject to intense scrutiny by outsiders.

The commission envisages the African Union playing a key role in this process. In 2002 the Organisation of African Unity – with its doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states – was replaced by the African Union, which had a new policy of ‘non-indifference’. The Commission for Africa welcomes this development, because it makes it easier for African states to be monitored by external authorities.

The African Union will not be the only body doing the monitoring. Western donors, the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa and ‘civil society organisations’ (mainly non-governmental organisations (NGOs)) are expected to play a key role. African states are also advised to sign up to the UN Convention Against Corruption and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative pioneered by DFID (14).

Such ‘partnerships’ will in effect create a parallel structure of government, which will further undermine already weak African nation states. These states will have to submit to detailed rules that are dictated by outsiders, and will have little autonomy or control over their already meagre resources.

The Blair Commission report argues that a key problem for Africa is weak states. But the report is wrong to blame this largely on the legacy of African dictatorships bolstered by Western governments during the Cold War. The Cold War ended over a decade ago, and in any case it is all too easy to blame Africa’s leaders for the continent’s plight. Instead, a more important role has been played by the recent history of Western states and NGOs interfering in Africa and undermining local states. And if implemented, the Blair Commission’s proposals would compound this problem.

External interference in Africa is objectionable in principle – at least to those who truly believe in self-determination. It means that outsiders determine how a country is run rather than a nation’s inhabitants. Even if African-led organisations such as the African Union are encouraged to play a role, Western powers are often guiding the terms of engagement. Western NGOs – which have large resources compared with many African states as well as the backing of Western countries – retain enormous influence. And agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank are dominated by Western powers.

But there are also practical reasons to oppose external intervention in Africa. The creation of parallel structures for distributing resources and monitoring state activity undermines African nations. It makes it even more difficult for African states to maintain their coherence. The virtual disintegration of such states as Somalia shows where interference can ultimately lead.

In the name of humanism and self-determination, Blair’s evangelical mission undermines Africa’s case for development. And in the name of governance it threatens to weaken still further Africa’s already fragile nation states.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

Ideology as absurdity, by Dr Julie Hearn

Holding nations in custody, by David Chandler

Poor ambitions for the world, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(1) Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa (.pdf 3.50 MB), March 2005

(2) Mbeki welcomes Blair’s Commission for Africa report, SABC news, 11 March 2005. Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister, was one of the commissioners

(3) Statement on Africa Commission report, Make Poverty History

(4) The power of community can change the world, Tony Blair, 3 October 2001

(5) Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa (.pdf 3.50 MB), March 2005, p77-8

(6) I believe this is Africa’s best chance for a generation…, Tony Blair, Guardian, 12 March 2005

(7) Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa (.pdf 3.50 MB), March 2005, p114

(8) See the Department for International Development website

(9) Poor ambitions for the world, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(10) See the Milennium Development Goals

(11) Tour diary: Gordon Brown in Africa, Mark Mardell, BBC News, 18 January 2005

(12) ‘No UK apology’ for colonial past, BBC News, 15 January 2005

(13) The power of community can change the world, Tony Blair, 3 October 2001

(14) See the United Nations Convention against Corruption (.pdf 256 KB), and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative

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Topics Politics


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