Adrian Hamilton: Africa is too important to be a Blair pet project

What tackling African poverty needs is sustained engagement by the West

More and more, I believe that the defining character of politics at the moment, and its greatest curse, is the drive for "ownership" of ideas and schemes. Whatever the subject - aid for Africa, democracy in the Middle East, the bid for the Olympic Games - politicians want it to be seen as theirs.

It has always been true of politicians, of course, especially when it came to war. Governments wanted the military victories to reflect on them and to distance themselves as rapidly as possible from defeat. But what is different now is the extent to which ideas as well as developments have been taken over by leaders seeking to be associated with the novel and the newsworthy. The traditional sense that policy needed to develop through consensus and support, and that it was therefore counter-productive to seek all the glory from the beginning, seems to have gone.

Instead, we are faced with the sight of the leaders of two of the world's richest countries playing games of who's-gained-what-from-whom over helping the world's poorest Continent. It's as if what is actually done to help the diseased and starving of Africa is entirely secondary to the question of whether Tony Blair got major concessions from the US President or just tokens.

No one can say that it is just the way the media have handled it. Right from the start, No 10 has briefed this as a special prime ministerial project and carefully tried to calibrate the level of expectation - at first, up and then, just before this week's Washington visit, down - adding the spin of this being the moment when Tony Blair would be showing his independence from Washington and demanding his "pay-back" for the war.

It would be pretty pathetic if it concerned a hard-edged negotiation over steel tariffs, but to make alleviating poverty in Africa the subject of such gamesmanship is frankly shameful.

It's also counterproductive. It's easy enough to say that these are the games politicians play in today's world when the media is the message, but it's a very destructive course if, indeed, it is becoming the norm.

In a sense politicians pursue "ownership" of ideas because they have so little real power, not so much. The less effective politics is in controlling the economy, delivering services and changing people's lives, the more politicians turn to abstractions and generalised ideas to lay claim to relevance.

But in doing so, they also set themselves up as targets for their critics and opponents. The media in particular then gets locked into a conflict in which they seek to demolish the idea, and disparage its effectiveness, as the means of criticising the politician. By personalising the project, the politician gives reason for the media to desire its failure.

The personalisation of projects is also bad politics in terms of practical achievement. Take the Africa campaign. To get a step change in aid and debt relief requires a co-ordinated effort among donor countries and international institutions. The more you make it specifically your own project, the less easy it is to get others to come along with you.

It also sets up policies or ideas as all-or-nothing initiatives which are bound to disappoint. Anyone would think from the way Tony Blair talks that the idea of a debt write-off for the poorest nations was his idea. It isn't. The policy was launched with the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative five years ago and has already taken 15 countries out of debt.

If Africa is now due to receive a large fillip in aid, it is thanks to the EU, which has just agreed to double aid, and the UN, which set out a programme at the time of the millennium. Britain can raise the stakes, but only by persuading others. Demanding the credit won't help.

It can also only work as part of a continuing programme. What projects such as tackling African poverty - or democracy in the Middle East or even climate change agreements - need is sustained engagement by the West. What politically "authored" initiatives do is to make them one-off campaigns. Once they have gained the headlines and delivered the credit, they lose impetus. It happened with Live Aid in 1985 and it could well happen again with Live8, 20 years later.

The great tsunami appeal earlier this year was extraordinary because it was spontaneous and because it could not be "owned" by the politicians or anyone else. And because of that, there is a real will to follow through what has happened to people's money since.

Blair's Africa mission, like Live8, is "owned". Gleneagles will be the climax and, one fears, the high point, after which it will be quietly allowed to drain away in the parched plains of the sub-Sahara.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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