It is only appropriate that this, the 400th anniversary of the publication of Cervantes' masterpiece Don Quixote, should end with the sight of Bob Geldof clambering on to a new steed to ride to the rescue of his beloved Africa. With a cry of "the cause is greater than mere party politics", the knight from Ireland has abandoned Tony Blair to embrace the new man of the British political scene, David Cameron, as a consultant on the Conservative Party policy group on global poverty.
Little wonder that most serious politicians, including the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, regard Bono as the man you do business with on Africa and Bob Geldof as the man whom you limit to a photo opportunity.
Geldof's aim is straight- forward enough. If you want to get action on Africa you have to embrace the political leaders of the West. Which parties the politicians belong to, what their policies are on other matters, are irrelevant.
As an understanding of how politics works, however, it is naive, if not completely egotistical. Causes in the world of Tony Blair and George Bush are merely images to be associated with, desires that you can "own" by association. Geldof, with his endless pursuit of publicity and his own personality, makes it easier for them to "own" the African cause by associating with him. But it doesn't do much for actual policy, particularly when you move camps.
To Geldof, switching from one party to another may be "non-partisan". To politicians, partisan is precisely what it is. The fact is that Geldof was useful so long as he was "his man". Now that he has switched patrons he will be marked down not as an idealist but as "unreliable".
David Cameron will treat him no differently. As long as the Tory Global Poverty group goes on meeting, Cameron can consult and claim his new man. Once the group reports, he will take whatever policy recommendations suit the Tory electoral strategy and Geldof will become as much yesterday's man as he already is to New Labour. As Geldof should have learnt by now, those who live by cosying up to politicians die by them.
Not that he is wrong to seek in politics a solution to poverty. It is just that he has got the wrong end of the political stick. His, like Don Quixote, is the last crusade of a vanishing code: the belief that Africa, or the world's, problems of poverty can be solved by the generosity and policies of a beneficent West, a once-and-for-all act of aid and debt forgiveness by the rich towards the poor.
Giving something is better than giving nothing at all. The starving of Africa need aid just as the poorer nations need relief from a debt burden incurred under corrupt regimes and Western-determined ideas of financing development.
But the past few years have seen a profound soul-searching among aid agencies and development experts. There is increasing doubt that masses of individual aid projects and specific dollops of financial assistance do much good over the longer term. There is instead a growing sense that what countries need to take them out of poverty is civic vitality on the one side and private investment on the other. You can remove obstacles such as debt or certain diseases, you can achieve specific aims such as primary education, but if it is to lead anywhere you need a society that wants change and can effect it. And for that you need both to work through governments, not apart from them, and you need to help create civic action groups.
Not the least cause for dismay at the arrest in Ethiopia of two Action Aid employees on charges of treason is that the agency had been trying to do exactly that, and was met by political suppression by a premier who sat along with Geldof on the Africa Commission.
No one is pretending that it is easy. The argument over multi-lateral institutions vs bi-national aid goes on, so does the question of the extent of co-operation with bad regimes. Corruption is at least as great an obstacle to development as authoritarianism, more so in some democratic regimes. And does it make sense anyhow to separate out Africa as a special problem in its own right?
The good news from Africa, as elsewhere, is that there are more and more signs that people want change and better governance and are prepared to work to get it. The difficult part is finding (and we're still at the learning stage) how the outside world can help.
It's something on which the Tory Poverty Group could well produce new ideas and a different stance. It's not something to which Geldof, locked into an old rhetoric of money targets and sweeping slogans, seems to have much to contribute.Reuse content