Playing a dirty trick on Africa

Western campaigners make grand pronouncements about ‘making poverty history’, yet their real vision for Africa is stiflingly small-scale. It is time for bigger dreams.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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Following debates on Third World development, and on Africa in particular, can be like watching a particularly skilled conjurer. One moment he is condemning the world’s leaders in vociferous terms and demanding that poverty is made history. The next he is advocating minimal solutions such as anti-malarial bed nets or giving goats to the poor (1). It is a bit like a magician pulling a scrawny, emaciated rabbit out of a huge and elaborately designed hat. Yet without watching closely it can be hard to see how the trick is done.

Giles Bolton, who worked for several years for Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), is a new practitioner of this skill. His book jacket boasts that: ‘Poor Story is a radical, brilliantly readable and totally original approach to an unending problem.’ Yet towards the end of the book Bolton concedes that his views are thoroughly mainstream: ‘The good news is that, short of development utopia, most of the steps needed to give African countries a fairer chance are well known. As I hope I’ve shown throughout this book, there’s a pretty impressive consensus about them: the quantity and quality of aid needs to be substantially increased, the most distorting elements of trade need to be significantly reduced; and poor countries need to be allowed more control of the policies that affect them through international institutions. The real question is whether any of these will be delivered.’ (2)

Admittedly, the blurb on the jacket of Bolton’s book was probably written by an overzealous copywriter rather than by the author himself. But, in the introduction to the book, Bolton does make the point that the views it contains are entirely his own (3). No doubt his views are genuinely held but they are remarkably similar to those of DFID – his former employer – and the British government in general. Official British policy is to support more aid, fair trade and ‘country ownership’ of development strategies (4).

The first clue to how the Africa trick is achieved is the reference to ‘development utopia’ in Bolton’s passage about the consensus on Africa. Poor Story contains passing references to ‘dreamers’ and ‘free market fundamentalists’ (5). It presents itself as a sensible third way between these two virtually unmentionable extremes. Yet both are caricatures of alternative views of development.

It is a long time since free marketeers dominated the debate on development. Back in the 1980s, the talk was of the importance of the free market, structural adjustment and the ‘Washington consensus’. But since then the orthodoxy has moved on to an outlook shared by Bolton. All the main powers, on paper at least, support increased aid and fair trade. All of them are obsessed with good governance as a way of minimising the chances of corruption. And the development consensus has long conceded an important role for the state in promoting poverty reduction rather than just leaving it to the market (6).

As for ‘dreamers’ – the key question here is what’s wrong with dreaming? Making a better, more prosperous society requires a dream of how things can be. The challenge then is to turn this positive vision into reality. In broad terms, such a process has played a key role in China’s rapid development in recent years. Its leaders had a vision of a developed industrialised, urbanised, modern society and they have set out to build it. China is far from perfect, but its record on development is far superior to any country that has followed the pragmatic model currently favoured by the West.

In contrast, Bolton has a section on the Millennium Development Goals favoured by the Western powers and endorsed by the United Nations. He describes these as ‘radical’ and says that ‘someone’ had the bright idea of coming up with them (7). He does not explain in what sense they can be seen as radical or point out that they are the initiative of the Western powers. These goals are the epitome of current low horizons on development. For example, the first Millennium Development Goal on poverty is to cut by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day by 2015. What about the other half? The second goal is to ‘cut by half, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’. So even if these ‘radical’ goals are reached, half of the world’s poor will still earn less than a dollar a day and half will still ‘suffer from hunger’. Am I a ‘dreamer’ if I say that such a small-scale vision is unacceptable and that we can surely do better?

To be fair to Bolton, there are parts of his book that are likely to be useful to anyone trying to understand Africa. For example, he points out that there are 90 official donors dispensing aid worldwide, ‘each demanding their own discussions, designing their particular approaches and imposing their own procedures’ (8). Then there is a multiplicity of international organisations as well as a large number of charities. Desperately poor African countries have to spend a large amount of their time attending to the detailed and often conflicting demands of their donors. Even then a lot of promised aid is not actually paid and when it is it often has to be spent on Western experts or tied to goods from a particular country.

But even when Bolton’s description of a particular situation is accurate he, like so many others, confuses cause and effect. The best example of this error is in relation to trade. Bolton describes how Western subsidies for their own agricultural producers often make it impossible for African countries to compete. One of his key proposals is for the West to stop giving such subsidies. In his view, such a measure would make trade fairer. What he misses is that it is the lack of development that allows the affluent West to trade on favourable terms with impoverished Africa. As long as Africa is underdeveloped there can never be fair trade in a meaningful sense. True equality can only come about through a process of real economic development (9).

The final chapters of the book give a clue as to why a peculiar combination of apparent idealism and cynical pragmatism is so popular in views of Africa today. Bolton calls on people to take action such as writing to MPs, signing petitions, protesting, organising local events, lobbying your friends, donating to charities and voting in elections. Campaigns such as Make Poverty History, which Bolton sympathises with, can start from a cynical view of contemporary politicians. Yet they end up by calling for limited forms of civic engagement and participation in the political process. Bolton, like Make Poverty History, is essentially calling on politicians to deliver on their promises rather than providing an alternative view on development.

Despite their apparently critical form, the views expressed by Bolton are the new orthodoxy. Yet to have any chance of appealing to a substantial section of the population he must distance his views to an extent from the record of politicians on development. Paradoxically, Bolton and others who dress up orthodoxies in radical language, and call on people to ‘get involved’, provide a way for the political class to find points of connection with a new generation of cynical youth. In this sense, Africa is simply being used as a trick up the sleeve for a bigger act that is being played in the West. It is not a trick that any of us should fall for.

Daniel Ben-Ami’s website can be found here .

Poor Story: An Insider Uncovers How Globalization and Good Intentions Have Failed the World’s Poor by Giles Bolton is published by Ebury. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK))

(1) Jeffrey Sachs is the arch-exponent of this approach. See Postponing the ‘End of Poverty’ by Daniel Ben-Ami, 6 May 2005. On the buy a goat campaign, see Why these patronising gifts get my goat by Sadhavi Sharma, 21 December 2006. On the anti-malarial bed net campaign, see Anti-malarial bed nets: the $10 insult by Emily Hill, 26 April 2007.

(2) Poor Story, p277.

(3) Poor Story, p3.

(4) On the idea of ‘country ownership’, see ‘Country ownership: the evasion of donor accountability’ by John Pender in Christopher J Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (eds.) Politics Without Sovereignty, University College London Press, 2007

(5) Poor Story, p309.

(6) A key document in the rehabilitation of the role of the state in development was the World Development Report 1997 on ‘the state in a changing world’

(7) Poor Story, p54. For a critique of the Millennium Development Goals, see Poor ambitions for the world by Daniel Ben-Ami, 3 February 2005.

(8) Poor Story, p111-112.

(9) See The coffee con by Daniel Ben-Ami 4 October 2002

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