Make lecturing Africa history

A year on from Live 8, Bob, Bono and the rest seem more concerned with bashing African governments than helping African people.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

A year on from the promises to ‘Make Poverty History’ at the G8 Gleneagles summit and the Live 8 concerts, there is little agreement on what has been achieved in terms of long-term poverty alleviation in Africa. However, there is a consensus that African governments need more international monitoring and regulation even at the expense of short-term economic development. The focus seems to have shifted from economic assistance to lecturing African governments on democracy, good governance and anti-corruption.

Many international charities have condemned the G8 and the British government for failing to deliver on their promises of aid, debt relief and trade reforms. There has been no agreement on trade reforms, a potentially important plank for any international economic agenda of assistance for African states. CAFOD and other aid agencies are angry that governments are double-counting debt relief as part of their aid budgets (1). In fact, according to Action Aid, the UK’s international aid has actually fallen, once debt relief and aid to Iraq is discounted (2). Cynical journalists have travelled to areas, such as the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, to discover that, 12 months on from Gleneagles people in Africa have still not heard of Bob Geldof and that ‘Live 8 has made no difference on the ground’ (3).

Meanwhile, UK prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown, and their secretary of state for international development Hilary Benn, have been quick to talk up the importance of some international debt relief measures: allowing Tanzania and Nigeria to fund more teachers and give more children school opportunities, giving Zambia the opportunity to abolish its basic healthcare fees, and allowing Ghana to build roads for farmers (4).

Debt relief has been an important one-off mechanism to free up resources for some African governments. The problem is that this has gone hand-in-hand with new forms of external interference, concerned not merely with the narrow economic policy of African regimes, but the whole range of government policymaking (see Africa: empowerment by imposition, by David Chandler).

The one issue on which the UK government and its NGO and media critics appear to be united is the need to lecture African elites over how they govern themselves. The question of ‘corruption’ – how African governments manage their internal affairs – has taken centre stage in discussions of international support for poverty reduction in Africa. According to leading poverty campaigner Bono, ‘corruption is as deadly as the HIV/Aids virus’ and ‘it’s a cancer’ that holds back growth and hurts the poor (5).

Under the empowering slogans of anti-corruption, Gordon Brown has led the international community in arguing that governments in Africa need to be transformed to be more people-centred: ‘Conditionality of aid should move away from recipient countries being responsible to donors…to their electorate. The only conditionality that matters, is of the government to their people.’ (6)

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) argues that ‘unpopular’ aid conditions should be scrapped, with Hilary Benn suggesting that the ‘only conditions’ necessary are ethical rather than economic ones: the ‘respect for human rights, poverty reduction and transparency in tackling graft’ (7). The international NGOs agree: Gavin Hayman, a campaigner for Global Witness, argues that ‘if you don’t tackle corruption upfront, then most of your other development work is not going to be very useful’ (8). Global Witness and other campaign groups are calling on DfID to put governance and corruption at the heart of its forthcoming white paper.

This renewed focus on governance and the corruption of African governments has been welcomed, not just by the government’s radical critics but also by its more conservative ones. The Daily Telegraph, in an article headlined ‘G8 pledges stalled as rulers cling to power’, a response to ongoing discussions of a new African Union ‘democracy charter’, sums up the view that African leaders are the main problem facing the continent (9).

This attempt to use the debate about limited aid and international poverty-reduction initiatives as a platform for condemning African regimes looks more likely to hold back Africa’s economic development, rather than to reduce poverty.

African growth rates have improved over the past few years, mainly due to rising commodity prices, with high oil prices and India and China’s increasing demand for raw materials, including oil, copper and other minerals (10). Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, argues:

‘Economic growth is what will really help Africa, and there is no evidence that aid gives you that…. What is changing Africa are things like the mobile telephone and the demand for raw materials from China. These are the things that give you a basis for development.’ (11)

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is enjoying its best period of sustained economic growth in three decades (12). Higher commodity prices push up exchange rates, making it more difficult to export manufactured goods – which in turn makes diversifying commodities into manufacturing and services more difficult. For this reason, support for export industries would be important if there was a genuine international desire to help African economies. However, not only is there little support in the economic field, even the vital foreign direct investment in raw material production has been criticised.

Far from commenting positively on the fact that foreign direct investment into Africa had increased by 200 per cent over the past five years, UN secretary general Kofi Annan has warned that this could be problematic. He claims there is a danger of focusing too narrowly on the economy rather than on broader questions of governance, and he talks of the dangers of a new exploitative ‘scramble for Africa’ with the surge of investor interest in the continent (13). The concern is that countries, such as China and India, are operating outside of these new morally-legitimised regulatory international regimes, and are not making their economic relations with African states conditional on democracy, anti-corruption and good governance measures (14).

There is an increasing consensus that economic growth is a secondary question for Africa. For example, Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News, argues in the New Statesman that ‘a sevenfold increase in the oil price has done nothing for the Ogonis, the Ijaws and other Delta peoples’ of Nigeria, implying that from the perspective of the poor and marginalised peoples in Africa, purely economic relations with African governments enforce their oppression (15).

Hilsum tells us that the spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has warned the Chinese government and its oil companies to steer well clear of the Niger Delta; Sir Bob Geldof, meanwhile, has warned that if the West doesn’t live up to its G8 promises, ‘China will be all over Africa…and they will embrace any government’ (16).

The opposition to any investment or trade relations to Africa that operate outside of the new international mechanisms of good governance regulation demonstrates how far the discussion on African development has shifted, from the economic sphere to the sphere of moralising lessons from the West on how Africa should run its affairs. This Africa-bashing has little to do with ‘making poverty history’.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Angela Balakrishnan, ‘Now is the Time for the World’s Rich to Deliver on Aid Pledge’, ‘Poverty: What did the G8 Achieve?’, supplement, Observer, 2 July 2006, p.2

(2) Patrick Watt and Tom Sharman, Mission Unaccomplished: One Year on from Gleneagles is the G8 Hitting its Targets on Debt, Trade and Aid?, Action Aid, 26 June 2006, p.11

(3) Steve Bloomfield, ‘Live8 and Geldof Draw Blank Stares in Congo’, Independent, 26 June 2006

(4) Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn, ‘We Could Never Make Poverty History Overnight’, Independent, 26 June 2006

(5) Larry Elliott, ‘Brown tells African Leaders: Make Corruption History or Lose Confidence of Western Donors’, Guardian, 23 May 2006

(6) Larry Elliott, ‘Brown tells African Leaders: Make Corruption History or Lose Confidence of Western Donors’, Guardian, 23 May 2006

(7) Conal Walsh, ‘Keeping the Lid on Corruption’,‘Poverty: What did the G8 Achieve?’, supplement, Observer, 2 July 2006, p.7

(8) Conal Walsh, ‘Keeping the Lid on Corruption’,‘Poverty: What did the G8 Achieve?’, supplement, Observer, 2 July 2006, p.7

(9) David Blair, ‘G8 Pledges Stalled as Rulers Cling to Power’, Daily Telegraph, 1 July 2006

(10) Lindsey Hilsum, ‘China’s Offer to Africa: Pure Capitalism’, New Statesman, 3 July 2006, pp.23-24

(11) William Langley, ‘The Live 8 Legacy’, Daily Telegraph, 25 June 2006

(12) Larry Elliott, ‘Africa Cannot Catch Up Until the West Keeps to its Deal’, Guardian, 29 May 2006

(13) ‘Annan Warns of a New Scramble for Africa’, Reuters, 2 July 2006

(14) Lindsey Hilsum, ‘China’s Offer to Africa: Pure Capitalism’, New Statesman, 3 July 2006, pp.23-24

(15) Lindsey Hilsum, ‘China’s Offer to Africa: Pure Capitalism’, New Statesman, 3 July 2006, pp.23-24

(16) Lindsey Hilsum, ‘China’s Offer to Africa: Pure Capitalism’, New Statesman, 3 July 2006, pp.23-24

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Topics Politics


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