Barbara Stocking: What Blair still needs to do for Africa

A year on from the Africa Commission report, the jury is still out


"I genuinely believe this is the best chance for Africa for a generation." This is what Prime Minister Tony Blair said this time last year when he launched the report of the Commission for Africa, a body he created to pin down the challenges of the continent. He added: "There is no certainty of success. But it won't be for want of trying."

In 2005, the year of Make Poverty History, Blair and his Cabinet championed the historic G8 deal in Gleneagles, which included an agreement to increase aid to Africa by $25bn [£14.4bn] by 2010 and the cancellation of debt owed to the World Bank and the IMF by 18 of the world's poorest countries. They deserve real credit for that leadership, but the toughest issues were always going to be trade and conflict.

The Commission for Africa clearly stated that developing countries should be able to choose the pace and scale of their own economic reforms - also a Labour Party manifesto commitment. A group of 13 African nations are proposing the means to do just that, by asking that in the world trade talks they be allowed to protect vulnerable farm sectors on which people depend for their basic food and survival.

The UK has not stepped up to defend this demand. Contrast this with the French government's vociferous defence of its trade-distorting farm subsidies at the EU budget negotiations last year. The UK Government has also allowed the EU to set an agenda that would prise open precarious manufacturing and service sectors in developing countries to an onslaught of European and US competition. The EU argues that this is done to promote competition and ensure a degree of reciprocity. But the current proposals on industrial market access threaten to deny developing countries the chance for future economic development and lock them into poverty.

This year, the UK also failed to fight for a reform of Europe's sugar regime that would help the poorest countries. Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia and Kenya are just a few places where sugar industries have the potential to thrive. But radical EU reform, agreed during the UK presidency and shepherded through by Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Environment, has cut them off in their infancy and undermined their potential.

The UK will not be in the room at this weekend's meeting of G6 trade ministers in London where the EU, US, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia will try to overcome the impasse in the World Trade Organisation negotiations, but the Prime Minister has been seeking to be a global power broker, pushing for a deal in the long-running Doha round. In his desire to get a deal, however, he is failing to ensure his Secretary of State for Trade, Alan Johnson, and the Department of Trade and Industry are striving for an agreement that will boost development and make trade fair.

Away from trade, conflict continues to stifle African development. The Government has played a useful role in Darfur, but in northern Uganda, for example, up to 2 million displaced people continue to live against a bloody backdrop of a vicious conflict in which 25,000 children have been abducted and forced to fight in the rebel army. The UK had an opportunity, as president of the UN Security Council last December, to put this issue at the centre of the UN's conflict agenda. It failed to do so.

These are some of the disappointments, but there have also been breakthroughs. Blair and his Cabinet were part of the reason that, after years of wrangling, an end date was finally agreed for export subsidies. Even so, it was three years later than hoped, and just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is needed to end damaging agricultural support.

Too often the deals that are struck fall short of the grand rhetoric. As the UK offers to cancel a large part of the debt of Nigeria, home to half of the poorest people in Africa, the Treasury is making the respected democratic government repay £1.7bn as part of the deal.

So what should the Government do to honour the findings of its own commission? On trade, no longer having to demonstrate the "neutrality" of its EU presidency, the UK must push for a deal that allows Africa all the policy options it needs to grow, and limits rich country farm subsidies that cause dumping. It should refuse to endorse any final deal that does not do this.

On debt, the Treasury should return Nigeria's money. On conflict, the Government should push harder for an international arms trade treaty to stop weapons getting into the wrong hands.

A year on from the Africa Commission report, the jury is still out on whether the UK Government has put all its political muscle behind driving through agreements, in trade and conflict, that will turn the vision of the commission into a reality.

The writer is director of Oxfam

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