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 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.

  • peteb

    “The naive lead the naive in a campaign of liberal guilt”

    And on that, The Guardian’s Sandra Laville and Jon Henley check with the coastguard on Bob’s Sail 8 call – “We are asking that people take to their boats in their thousands and pick up the people of France for a friendlier invasion. It will be beautiful and amazing …”

    “Can you say all that again?” asked the duty officer [at Cherbourg], Ensign Francois-Xavier Miermont. “I see. No, we haven’t heard anything about this at all.”

  • Ciaran

    I saw that rent a quote too – is it surprising that
    ‘a duty officer [at Cherbourg], Ensign Francois-Xavier Miermont’ hasnt heard about it, an ensign is quite a low rank

  • DCB

    Trade would do a lot more than aid to help Africa.

    They should not waive the debt of any seriously corrupt government as it just frees up government coffers for capital flight

    As an african friend of mine used to say, if you get the choice to vote always go for the incumbent, as he’s already robbed the country

  • peteb


    I’d quite like to hear which “maritime safety people” Bob’s staff contacted to “discuss the event”.

  • idunnomeself

    Doesn’t this article totally miss the point?

    The campaign isn’t for Aid to solve the problems, it’s to allow Africa to work its way out of poverty, to dismantle tariff barriers, to reduce unpayable debt so their own money can be invested, to stop us ruining their economies by dumping our surpluses on them..

    In other words the 15 year old arguments trotted out here explaining why aid alone won’t work have been accepted and the formula to help Africa MPH advocates is a darn sight more robust.

    And aid nowadays hardly goes near the elites anyway..

    Don’t all these boats sail around the channel anyway?

  • idunnomeself

    Incidentally 100,000 Millionaires is hardly any in a continent that size.. I’m surprised there aren’t that many in Jo’burg..

  • Mick

    The key objection seems to be around the degree to which debt relief can actually get Africa out of a big deep hole in its governance and regulatory systems.

    The number of millionaires is worth alluding to because it indicates there are pockets of extreme wealth sitting in the middle of extreme poverty.

    This interview with Vincent Del Buono from a few years back gives an indication of why one apparently oil rich African country cannot distribute its own wealth outside and beyond its own native elites.

    The Guardian Weekly had an excellent piece on the curse of oil:

    But all leading economists know that, when a poor country finds oil, it is more often a curse than a blessing. The history of all the other oil-producing countries in the region – Nigeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Congo, Chad, Cameroon – shows that sudden petro-wealth can swamp a poor country, rip apart its culture, divide its people, destabilise its governments, lead to massive corruption and human rights abuses, encourage coups and militarisation, and wreck the environment.

    Though oil is an extreme example, it indicates that many of Africa’s economic problems are not likely to be amenable to a single quick fix.

  • Jimmy_Sands


    As I stated on the other thread, I think there is a straw man being set up here. The Africa Commission states in terms that without addressing governance issues, the benefit of the aid package being sought will be negligible. A great deal of effort seems to be going into demolishing arguments which, as far as I can tell, no-one is actually making.

  • 6countyprod

    Bob Geldof has certainly impressed a bunch of American rightwing bloggers (,

    They reckon he knows his stuff and talks a lot of sense. Keep up the good work for Africa, Bob.