No, its failure is much more general than that, and much more worrying. It is that the majority of the public – most of the private donors, indeed – no longer believe that their efforts will achieve very much, let alone provide the one great push that will take the African continent out of poverty into self-sustaining growth for the long-term future.
This year's concentration on Africa – the Africa Commission, Live8, the Chancellor's determined effort to produce a new Finance Initiative as well as wipe out debt for the most impoverished – seeks to get the public behind the theme of "one great heave and we can solve Africa's problems". We owe the continent a once-in-a-lifetime effort out of compassion and duty. And we could really do it this time.
I doubt that many people believe this any more. I doubt that there are even that many people who really believe that the G8 generosity, however much it may amount to, will do that much good. Instead of a surge of gathering hope, there seems instead to be a mood of sad resignation that, with the best of intentions, we are largely wasting our money. As the debate has gathered pace in the last few months, the strongest voices have appeared to be those, from the aid agencies and within Africa as much as in the think tanks of Washington, who have warned of the wastefulness of aid.
Indeed, one of the most extraordinary and perhaps most significant features of the Africa debate has been the way it has brought together, for quite different reasons, the ideological opposites of those who believe aid is wasted on economic grounds and those Africans who reject what they regard as the patronising and ill-directed manner in which the white West is offering it. Both say that financial help is not the answer. Better governance within Africa is.
As if to prove their point, this year has seen both the massacres and dispossession in Darfur and the more recent slum clearances – "drive out the rubbish" as Robert Mugabe has so delicately named it – in Zimbabwe. Nothing could be so calculated to disabuse the world of any enthusiasm for state aid to Africa than the sight of these brutalities or the evident inability of the rest of Africa or the West to do anything about them.
At the same time, the confidence in aid has been undermined by the six-month anniversary reports on the tsunami. There have been few disasters which have so aroused the instinctive and instant compassion of the world than the tsunami that struck south Asia last Boxing Day. Nobody would deny the aid has helped. But the bureaucratic delays and the slowness of response by the countries concerned has led many ordinary donors to feel uneasy about the effectiveness of their largesse (often considerable in individual terms). If the same happened again today, I'm not at all certain that it would produce anything like the same scale or response.
Bob Geldof, Tony Blair and the religious leaders who have committed themselves to Africa aren't to blame. But they have hardly helped. By wrapping the whole G8 debate into a single great gesture of assistance and making it into so much their own campaigns, they have clothed the issue in a kind of generalised, state-organised and politically directed campaign which makes donors most uncomfortable. Personal compassion – specific aid – would seem to have no part in grand schemes.
It would be a tragedy if we are seeing a retreat from aid. Personal compassion remains the single noblest act of individuals. Whatever the inefficiencies, or even corruption, it cannot be wrong for the rich to give to the poor, or the developed economies to help the less developed – abroad any more than at home. The poverty, the disease, the famine and the dispossessed deserve our compassion whatever the causes.
But Gleneagles may prove most important less for what it does than for what it stops trying to do. The grand approach is the wrong approach; it raises expectations it cannot fulfil, sets up a numbers bidding game that has no meaning on the ground and takes aid and assistance out of the realms of the practical into the world of bankers, bureaucrats and politicians.
If people are to have their confidence in giving restored – and they badly need to at this point – then the African question needs to be disaggregated to its individual components: to the provision of available vaccines to prevent malaria and TB and control Aids, to the negotiation of fair trading terms and the provision of technology to help agriculture and industry and, above all perhaps, to the application of political solutions to the man-made disasters destroying particular countries. Find some solution to Darfur, to the Congo, Guinea and Liberia and to Zimbabwe, and we will do far more good than all the debt relief and increased aid that the G8 will ever provide.Reuse content