Alex Vines: Angola is a test of British assistance to Africa

There are concerns that Africa is being co-opted into UK domestic politics
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The Independent Online

Today, Armando Guebuza, the President of Mozambique arrives in London to be fêted as the leader of the Department for International Development's latest aid champion. Tomorrow, the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, will decide whether to cut Angola's tiny and yet highly innovative DFID programme yet further.

The contrast in DFID's approach to these two deeply impoverished former Portuguese colonies couldn't be greater, but neither could their situation. While Mozambique is undergoing a successful transition, Angola is still struggling towards its first post-conflict elections and has made limited progress, across a range of basic developmental fields. The DFID's strange priorities are leading many to argue that the department is failing, and becoming increasingly unpopular among the very people in Africa it is tasked with assisting.

The British affection for Mozambique has deep roots, and this facilitated its joining the Commonwealth in the late 1990s. The Chancellor has visited Mozambique twice in the last couple of years, and used Mozambique as one of the locations to unveil his International Finance Facility in 2005. Since its civil war ended in 1992, growth has been rapid; it accelerated in the second five-year period after the conflict.

Unlike, Mozambique, Angola's conflict ended only in 2002. A transition process is under way, and the second ever parliamentary elections may beheld next year. The first were in 1992, when the losing candidate, Jonas Savimbi of Unita, decided to return to war. As DFID's own reports have highlighted, such post-conflict transitional periods are critical for longer term stability and poverty reduction. The country's literacy rate is probably much less than 50 per cent, and child mortality is estimated to be over 20 per cent. After 30 years of war, Angola suffers from an acute development deficit.

DFID's country programme in Angola has been highly praised in recent years; though the amounts of money have been small, they have been deployed in innovative ways to encourage pro-poor policies, particularly in the provision of basic services. The DFID-funded Luanda Urban Poverty Programme (LUPP) has encouraged local government to provide water and sanitation in the peri-urban areas of Luanda - an innovative approach that USAID is copying for its municipal development programme. In raw political and economic terms, Angola is of greater strategic importance to the United Kingdom than Mozambique; as a a key supplier of oil, it is important to the UK's energy security. Cutting DFID funding sends out the signal that the UK is not concerned with mitigating the social fallout from an economy that has been severely distorted, partly for the UK's benefit.

So why on earth is DFID considering cutting funding at such a crucial time? Part of the problem is that British exposure to Angola is limited. A common perception is that Angola, which has in the past few days joined Opec, is a classic petro-economy ruled by a shameless kleptocracy who could reduce Angolan poverty if they wished. Such a view is wrong. There is serious corruption, but projected oil revenues are not sufficient to pull Angola out of poverty even if the Angolan government were fully committed to such an objective.

The World Bank's own economic memorandum for Angola, Oil, Growth and Equity, launched to a packed and appreciative audience in Luanda last Thursday, offers valuable analysis of the challenges Angola faces, such as public service delivery to the poor and why, partnerships such as those facilitated by DFID are so important and must continue.

There is a broader and more serious issue, however. Voices are being raised across Africa and beyond to the effect that recent DFID decisions are making the department appear increasingly divorced from priorities in the continent itself, and more concerned with its own image in the UK. The DFID, and by extension Hilary Benn, who is running for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, can get plaudits for success stories such as Mozambique, while there is little domestic political capital to be gained from the tougher environment of countries such as Angola.

There is a widespread feeling that the Commission for Africa was more about winning votes in the 2005 UK election than about livelihoods in Africa. It is unsurprising, therefore, that there are now concerns that Africa is once again being co-opted into UK domestic politics. Africans may be watching with some interest to see whether tomorrow's decision on funding for Angola bears out these concerns.

The writer is head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House