Can the Tony and Bob Show really do any good in Africa?

Tomorrow, Tony Blair arrives in Ethiopia with Bob Geldof for a meeting of his Commission for Africa. But what do African leaders make of his recommendations and how do they view Mr Blair? Richard Dowden reports from Addis Ababa
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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair flies into Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, tomorrow to attend the second and crucial meeting of his Commission for Africa, several African leaders who might have been expected to welcome him will be missing. Among them are the chairman and senior officials of the African Union, the continent-wide organisation of African states. They have decamped to Senegal this week for a meeting of African intellectuals, which leaves Mr Blair deprived of the AU's vital endorsement.

When Tony Blair flies into Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, tomorrow to attend the second and crucial meeting of his Commission for Africa, several African leaders who might have been expected to welcome him will be missing. Among them are the chairman and senior officials of the African Union, the continent-wide organisation of African states. They have decamped to Senegal this week for a meeting of African intellectuals, which leaves Mr Blair deprived of the AU's vital endorsement.

The commission grew out of Mr Blair's determination to do something about Africa which he described as a "scar on the conscience of the world". Next year Britain will chair the G8 summit and the European Union, a position of unprecedented international influence, and the Prime Minister has put Africa at the top of the agenda of both. He set up the commission to find a coherent set of international policies to help Africa. It brings together 17 leading international and African players, including Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Bob Geldof, whose idea it was in the first place.

Holding the meeting in Ethiopia is of particular significance. Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and its population is expected to double to 140 million by 2025. This year, eight million Ethiopians are vulnerable to hunger because of drought earlier this year. That's three million more than in most years. Many will be given food aid but it is a reminder of the famine that hit exactly 20 years ago. In fact, Geldof's visit has a double purpose. He is also here to make a BBC film to mark the 20th anniversary of the Live Aid concert which raised millions of pounds for famine victims.

But what looked like a trouble-free act of high-minded generosity to Africa by Mr Blair has already run into difficulties. The British manufacture and control of the commission's report may not help the Prime Minister to sell its findings in Africa. His earlier attempts to woo individual African leaders have also come unstuck. He was once close to President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa but they fell out badly over Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth Conference last year and the breach is now regarded as irretrievable.

The fact that Mr Blair has few allies on the Zimbabwe issue in Africa demonstrates a British diplomatic failure to understand how to win friends in Africa. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria is regarded as a reliable ally on some issues like Zimbabwe but he has taken few measures to bring "good governance" to Nigeria and is not a good advertisement for the sort of values Mr Blair is trying to promote.

Furthermore, few Africans back Mr Blair on the Iraq invasion. Many interpret it as a rebirth of imperialism and a precedent for intervention in Africa. Respected Africans from Nelson Mandela to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, tried to dissuade Mr Blair from the Iraq venture but were rebuffed.

But one African leader who backed him was Mr Meles, the host of this week's meeting. Mr Meles's motives are not difficult to fathom. He himself is in defiance of a ruling by the United Nations Boundary Commission - the only government leader ever to reject such a ruling.

Mr Meles had promised several times to accept the UN's ruling on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea but when the commission came down in Eritrea's favour, Mr Meles rejected it. Many people believe the border war between the two countries, which cost 100,000 lives, could now start again.

"Sound" on economic issues but ruling one of the most fractious as well as impoverished countries of the world, Mr Meles has been rewarded by Britain with $60m in direct budget support for his government. But Ethiopia has a poor record on human rights and the treatment of the independent press. According to Amnesty International, his government arrested scores of people on 26 August, many of whom are held incommunicado and without charge. Some have reportedly been tortured. Earlier this year government troops killed about 40 people in Gambella province during a period of ethnic clashes. But elections are planned for next year and the government appears to be trying to level the playing field and bring in new laws to give press freedom a stronger legal basis.

On the whole, the idea of the commission has been welcomed and initial misgivings soothed. But some African commissioners have privately expressed misgivings about Mr Blair's motives. Others are worried about the presence of Bob Geldof. They don't like his expletive-peppered language and they do not regard him as serious about Africa. The next few days will tell if the Tony and Bob show can win them over.

There are also doubts about the commission's mandate. Geldof called for "out of the box" thinking about Africa. He has threatened to walk out if it becomes "just another boring report". This caused concern in Africa where a plan for a new relationship between Africa and the rest of the world has already been drawn up called the New Partnership for Africa's Development, (NePAD). Was this plan being set aside, asked some African leaders, pointing out that there are filing cabinets of well-intentioned reports on Africa and millions of balloons filled with the hot air of politicians' promises. Why not get on and implement these rather than create another one?

British officials, on the other hand, pointed out that the commission could only recommend what Mr Blair could sell to the G8 leaders. An early draft by Sir Nicholas Stern, ex-World Bank staffer and Treasury mandarin drafted in by Gordon Brown after the commission had already started, quickly reassured them. Sir Nicholas's draft report says the commission is not associated with any "single new ingredient" and there is a no single "solution to Africa's development problems that has hitherto been overlooked". He makes it clear that the commission's recommendations will not include any new ideas but will try to give a "big push" to existing initiatives and promises.

And it will be aimed not at Africa itself, but at what the "international community [can] do to support successful development" in Africa. The message is that the rest of the world will make radical policy changes in certain areas to clear the way for Africa to grow but "it will be largely Africa that will determine whether development moves more rapidly in the future".

But, the report says: "African policies and performance have been moving ahead ... Evidence will be provided that Africa has the absorptive capacity to accommodate a big push [on aid]". The message is that this is the moment to help Africa to meet the targets of the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to provide universal primary education, reduce infant mortality by two thirds and halve malnutrition by 2015. On present trends, sub-Saharan Africa, where an increasing number of people are reduced to poverty, will not achieve the goals by 2050, let alone 2015.

The report says aid to Africa should be doubled to $15bn-$20bn a year. This is the core of the "big push" and it recommends that aid should be predictable and long term. One way of raising it could be Mr Brown's proposed International Finance Facility to raise $50bn through government-backed bonds. This new aid should be given to African governments in budget support.

A decade ago the West saw African governments as the problem but Sir Nicholas's draft report sees them as the solution. The task of the rest of the world, he says, is to support well-run, effective states for Africa and not to interfere too much: "Prudent concern for public finances [should] not translate into an insistence on cutting and weakening the function of the state." He warns against "simplistic policies" and the "burden of conditionality" imposed by the World Bank and the IMF on African governments. The IMF also comes in for a dig for imposing ceilings on expenditure in countries recovering from war.

The report also urges great debt forgiveness for Africa and suggests that 100 per cent multinational debt write-offs should be considered. But it wants these linked to good economic governance. The new funds for Africa should be concentrated on sustainable economic growth, investment in poor people and strengthening government institutions. In particular it suggests greater resources for health, especially for clean water and cheaper drugs for HIV/Aids, and more funds for education, especially for girls, and it says attention should be given to African universities which have been neglected.

The report urges greater promotion of agriculture in Africa, exploring the possibilities for a "green revolution" which transformed food production in south-east Asia in the 1970s. It makes no mention, however, of land rights, which often lie at the heart of Africa's low agricultural production. More outside engagement in ending wars in Africa is also recommended, though the principle should be African solutions to African problems. The rest of the world should provide support. The rest of the report concentrates on things the rest of world does that damage African development:

  • There should be tighter controls of money-laundering. Stolen funds should be repatriated, especially from Britain, where London has become the money-laundering capital.
  • Trade barriers should be lifted and preferential treatment given to African goods.
  • African workers should be allowed easier access to the rich world. "The commission could support a major initiative to allow temporary migration of African labour," the report says, suggesting that western countries should compensate Africa for the depletion of its skilled workers; for example by training two nurses in Africa for each one recruited by western countries.
  • Control of the arms trade should be tightened and the role of government export credits for arms investigated.
  • The theft of natural resources should be controlled. Natural resources companies should be compelled to be transparent about payments and earnings and take greater care of their environmental impact.
  • Africa should be given a better image to counter the tendency of extrapolating negative news from one country to colour the image of the whole continent.

Whether the other commissioners buy into this vision will emerge in the next few days. If they don't, there is little time to debate other plans. The Brandt Commission on the Third World - to which Blair's commission has been compared - took seven years to deliberate before it made its main report in 1984. It was made up of retired statesmen who had time on their hands and were free of constituencies. Mr Blair's commission has in effect been given a mere seven months, and all its members are serving politicians and officials. They will not meet again until the report is published. In the meantime it is entirely in the hands of British civil servants, all of whom were hastily drafted into offices of the Department for International Development earlier this year.

Many had never been to Africa and found themselves desperately looking up where countries were and who ruled them while they waited for phones and computers to arrive.

The other problem Mr Blair has in Africa is Africa itself. Sir Nicholas's draft report delicately steps around Africa's ugly problems of greedy, power-hungry rulers, using euphemisms such as weak or poor governance. No countries are named in the report but his talk of Africa's ability to absorb more aid money raises the question: which ones? The ones that need aid most, like Congo, have no capacity to use it well.

Outside South Africa the only African state with the ability and integrity in its government and civil service to use aid and the social and political cohesion to safeguard its benefits is Botswana. But then Botswana has no need of aid; it has hefty reserves. So the problem remains unresolved. It is easy to help the success stories; the question is what to do with the waverers and failures.


Kofi Annan

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, is the sort of official who could have provided international endorsement for the commission's first African meeting in the city which hosts the UN economic commission for Africa. However,he leaves for a long-planned trip to China on Friday.

Thabo Mbeki

Relations with Mr Blair have been damaged over the South African president's low-key response to the crisis in Zimbabwe. British officials are irritated and the feeling is probably mutual. But while Mr Mbeki is not a member of the commission, he is sending his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who is.

Alpha Oumar Konare

Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union, which should be directly concerned by Mr Blair's debate. But its current chairman, Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, will be in Senegal while the commission is meeting, along with the rest of the African Union's staff.