Failure of realism on Africa…

Martin Kettle picks over the energetic largely British campaign to tackle African poverty (orchestrated online by the impressively conceived and executed makepovertyhistory.org site), and wonders if it has not focused enough on examining it’s likely outcomes. The enthusiastic backing of Blair and Browne may also be giving many supporters of the campaign a false hope for real impacts to flow out of the upcoming G8 conference.

Blair has recouped a little of his lost global and domestic esteem with his work on Africa. His commission report is a serious document, informed by at least some African experience, though its strength in recognising the centrality of African governance is vitiated by its optimism about African governance’s actual current condition. You would look in vain too for any recognition in the document that for every £1,000 of African debt and debt interest, Africa’s elites have exported £1,450 of capital into overseas banks and investments.

Brown’s ideas about Africa have had an even easier ride. His manifest sincerity, the high profile he has given to the subject, and the mere fact that he is not Blair, have protected his ideas from the kind of scrutiny that they merit. At the heart of Brown’s approach, after all, is a desire to increase the flows of capital to Africa, whether in the form of aid, which he is keen to increase, and in debt relief, including the international finance facility, which would have a parallel effect. This is why he speaks so often of a Marshall plan for Africa.

Yet is lack of capital Africa’s real problem? Many say emphatically no. Africa has 100,000 millionaires. Pointing out that every African alive today has received roughly $5,000 in aid, Richard Dowden of the Royal Africa Society argues that “if aid were the solution to Africa’s problems it would be a rich continent by now”. And a truly devastating critique of Brown’s approach by Ian Taylor in the March 2005 issue of International Affairs argues that “his lack of knowledge about Africa has meant that he has latched on to the simple – but wrong – solutions”. Calls for a Marshall plan for Africa ignore the fact that Africa has already received the equivalent of six Marshall plans in cash terms. Taylor calls such prescriptions “more headline grabbing than well thought through”.

Finally he concludes:

Too much of the Make Poverty History campaign reeks of middle-class Europeans trying to feel good about themselves by prescribing very radical but practically dubious solutions to Africa’s problems. Unusually, though, a similar criticism can be levelled against our normally pragmatic and careful government too. Geldof and Brown are in the same game. Both are brilliant at playing on liberal guilt. Neither of them is nearly as good at helping us to understand Africa.

Is it not too late to have a rather more sceptical and much less emotive debate about global poverty? Might it not be the case that the developed world is neither the problem nor the solution in Africa? Unless we rein in our rhetoric and our expectations very quickly then, at the very least, a lot of people are going to be very disappointed about what happens at Gleneagles.