Africa deserves better; but not all of its problems were created by the West

Africa is a beautiful continent, full of potential. Yet it is not clear if that continent can generate its own salvation
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The Independent Online

Meetings of the G8 countries are a waste of time. Back in the Eighties, when it was still possible to believe that the major economic powers could promote growth by co-ordinating exchange rates, such gatherings had some intellectual content, even though much of it was spurious.

Today, there is nothing but waffle. The world economy is overshadowed by three big questions. Will George Bush's attempts to stimulate US domestic demand succeed (grounds for cautious optimism)? When will Japan see a resurgence in consumer spending (when indeed)? When will the Franco-Germans address their supply-side problems and convert to Euro-Thatcherism (when pigs start flying)? None of these matters will be usefully discussed at Evian. No longer an economic summit, it is merely a jolly get-together - which is not so jolly these days, given that several participants detest one another.

Everything started to go wrong when the G7 became, with the addition of Russia, the G8. One can see why it was necessary to massage Russian amour-propre, but as a result, economics gave way to diplomacy, which has now given way to photography. This will have one use, in that it will throw fresh light on an old debate. Can the camera lie? If it shows George Bush and Jacques Chirac smiling at one another, there answer will be "yes''.

Since the admission of Russia, G8 proceedings have been further debased by the presence of two other groups: protesters and mendicants. The protesters are usually spoilt brats from affluent first-world families, wallowing in self-indulgence while persuading themselves that they care about the world's poor. The mendicants are also in the self-indulgence trade; rich African politicians who are persuading the West that they care about their poor. They must be pleased that the G8 is meeting in Evian. So convenient for a discreet meeting with one's Swiss bank manager.

It is right for the West to feel guilty about Africa. However, this is nothing to do with the liberal guilt that even conservative politicians feel it necessary to display in public. Instead, we need conservative guilt, which has a double advantage. It is justified, and it will point us toward helpful measures.

There are three reasons why conservatives should feel guilty about Africa. The first is independence. From early on, the British colonial service believed that it had a tutelary role as well as an imperial one; its task was to guide Africans towards eventual self-government. As late as 1950, however, even though Africans were increasingly involved in administration, it was generally assumed that this would take many decades.

Then came scuttle, largely under a Conservative government. Two wars had sapped our imperial will, and our imperial purse. So we got out. Some Tory idealists such as Iain McLeod may have convinced themselves that this was in Africa's interests and that mountebanks such as Nkrumah of Ghana and Nyerere of Tanzania could actually teach the rest of mankind something about statesmanship. Others, wiser and more cynical, found such delusions a useful disguise for surrender. "The wind of change," Harold Macmillan called it. It was an ill wind for the average African, and it is still blowing. If pre-independence rates of economic growth had been sustained in the formerly British black African countries, their economies would now be twice or three times larger.

The second reason for guilt is foreign aid. There was far too much of it. In the late Peter Bauer's phrase, a lot of foreign aid was a subsidy paid by poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries. There was hardly any monitoring of aid to ensure that it was deployed effectively. The money that was not immediately banked abroad had two principal impacts on African economies; it provided cash to buy Mercedes for the political elite and to pay the soldiers who kept that elite in power while ravaging the rest of the country. Only one nation's economy has benefited from African aid: Switzerland.

Forget unfair trade and subsidised food from the United States and the European Union. Africans are natural traders and much of Africa is fertile. Left to themselves, Africans could have undercut most foreign food imports while expanding their nations' traded sectors. However, they have not been left to themselves. They have been plundered. It was not the United States or the European Union that destroyed Zimbabwe's agriculture.

The third reason why conservatives should feel guilt about Africa is white minority rule. Too many right-wingers remained silent while corrupt African leaders and their naive Western supporters used Rhodesia and South Africa to distract attention while much of the rest of black Africa reverted to the Heart of Darkness. Eventually, the idealists had their way. Ian Smith was displaced by Robert Mugabe.

Though South Africa is in much better shape than Zimbabwe, the corruption sector of the economy is growing while the country's universities are being destroyed as are its orchestras and museums. Equally, the Mbeki government could help to end Zimbabwe's torture by economic pressure - cutting off fuel supplies - and facilitating the use of force against the Mugabe regime. Instead, Mr Mbeki is too busy with his researches about the cause of Aids.

Though Bob Geldof has praised President Bush's Aids initiative, the rest of us should be sceptical; $15bn is a huge amount of money; has anyone any idea how it could be spent effectively? At present, because of the squalid, hideous way in which it is misgoverned, Africa lacks the infrastructure for a proper medical campaign against Aids.

This will cost more than $15bn to put right, and it is nothing to do with Western drug companies. They did not persuade some black South Africans that the best way to cure Aids is to have sex with a pre-pubescent virgin.

Africa is a beautiful continent, full of potential and attractive people who deserve so much more than the way in which they are forced to live, and die. Yet it is not clear that the continent can generate its own salvation. It may be necessary to devise a form of neo-imperialism, in which Britain, the US and other beneficent nations would recruit good local leaders, give them guidance to move toward free markets, the rule of law and - ultimately - some viable local version of democracy, while removing them from office in the event of backsliding. The cost of such a venture would probably not exceed the current misapplied aid budgets; the military commitment would also be sustainable. If it is good enough for Iraq, it should be good enough for Africa.

This will not happen, however. Western liberal guilt has an armlock on policy; conservative guilt has no political momentum. Western liberals would far rather that Africans continued to suffer if the alternative was an admission that Europeans and Americans might be better at directing the continent's destiny.