Bruce Anderson: Political grandstanding and yet more wasted aid will not lift Africa out of poverty

We must start taking African leaders seriously and insist that they behave seriously
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The Independent Online

Switzerland is a successful country. It does not need foreign aid. Yet, if the British government has its way, it will receive some. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown insist that the advanced world should spend a lot more on aid to Africa. But they have not yet produced any evidence that they have thought through their plans. There are no mechanisms to ensure that the additional aid would actually assist Africans, instead of being siphoned off by corrupt politicians.

Switzerland is a successful country. It does not need foreign aid. Yet, if the British government has its way, it will receive some. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown insist that the advanced world should spend a lot more on aid to Africa. But they have not yet produced any evidence that they have thought through their plans. There are no mechanisms to ensure that the additional aid would actually assist Africans, instead of being siphoned off by corrupt politicians.

On all past evidence, aid for Africa is guaranteed to enhance Swiss banks' profits. There are no guarantees that ordinary Africans will benefit, and there is a danger that aid programmes add to their misery. African dictators need cash to buy the loyalty of the troops who keep them in power. Naive Western donors have often ended up by subsidising repression.

Gordon Brown is boasting about his $50bn (£27bn) debt relief programme. But why has he not tried to find out where the money went in the first place? Most of it was intended to promote economic development. So let us enquire how much development took place. If a lot of the money was wasted or embezzled, what guarantee have we that matters would now improve? By relieving debt, Brown hopes to improve Africa's cash-flow. So how would the extra cash be spent?

When Gordon Brown negotiates with his Cabinet colleagues over their requests for increased public spending, they know that they are in for tough arm-wrestling, especially if the Chancellor regards them as Blairites. They have to satisfy the Treasury that any extra money would be usefully spent. Why should the same not apply to African politicians seeking aid?

If the money is simply handed over, all the wrong signals are sent. African leaders will conclude that whenever they look like running out of cash, there will always be some Western politician happy to swan through Africa with photographers in attendance and his taxpayers' chequebook at hand.

There is every reason to distrust Gordon Brown's motives, and also Tony Blair's. Brown wants to maintain credibility with Labour backbenchers, to ensure the succession. Given the state of Britain's public finances, he will no longer be able to do that by large increases in public spending. Fortunately for him, there is Africa, and debt relief. The merit of debt relief is that the Chancellor can talk in tens of billions at very little cost to the Treasury. It is a perfect stunt for a leadership campaign.

Or for a place in history. Blair had hoped to be the Prime Minister who reformed the public services: fat chance of that. He intended to pick up Ted Heath's banners and march Britain into Europe. Instead, he is re-fighting Maggie Thatcher's battles. So what is left for the historians? They will have to make do with Africa.

From Blair's point of view, the merit of Africa is the lack of intellectual rigour. On public services and Europe, he will be judged by objective criteria, and found wanting. But Africa is for emotions, not judgement. Many voters are happy for the Government to be in tsunami-relief mode; watch some heart-rending TV footage and then rush to give money, without establishing that it will not evaporate along the way.

Africa will not win Blair a place in history. History will see through him. But he is increasingly prone to confuse the gratifications of narcissism with bankable successes (Tony leaves them to Cherie). But Africa is too important to be treated as a photo-call. Nor should its leaders be treated like children.

There is, alas, no easy way of making Mugabe history, and his devilish ingenuity is unlimited. Every day, he seems to come up with some new way of wrecking his country and brutalising its people. If he fell tomorrow, it would take decades to repair the damage - and he intends to spend the rest of his life adding to the damage and lengthening the decades.

This should be a scar on Africa's conscience. If its politicians had any pan-African patriotism, they ought to feel guilty and angry about Mugabe, as we Europeans did about Milosevic. Yet there is no evidence that the destruction of Zimbabwe is causing much distress in the rest of the continent. We have to ask whether any African leader who will not denounce Mugabe is fit to be entrusted with foreign aid.

Most Western politicians shy away from such a confrontation. There is a reason for that, and it is not a credible one. There is an assumption, as widespread as it is unspoken, that Africans must be judged by lesser standards; that there is no point in taking them seriously when they ignore Mugabe, because they are not serious people. Thus we acquiesce in the failure of a continent. We must start taking African leaders seriously and insist that they behave seriously. If we do not, no amount of aid will improve matters.

Fortunately, there is a new and crucial actor on the development stage who does take Africa seriously and who would never patronise its people or their politicians. Paul Wolfowitz is a neo-conservative. He believes in universal values. He will never accept that democracy and human rights are the preserve of fortunate people in rich countries. He is determined to use his presidency of the World Bank to ensure that they are made accessible to all mankind.

That is why he was so keen to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Whatever the short-term costs, Mr Wolfowitz was convinced that Saddam's removal was essential for Iraq's long-term well-being.

Mr Wolfowitz is an intellectual. In politics, intellectuals can be dangerous. They form theories. Having done so, they are clever enough to highlight the facts which fit their preconceptions, while bludgeoning any awkward data until it surrenders. Intellectuals are often idealists, and idealists can get into trouble. Their eyes are so fixed on the heavens, rather than on the rough track immediately ahead, that they trip over their own feet and end up in the mire.

In Africa, however, it is worth taking the risk and letting ideals have their head. Almost all existing development programmes have failed. Hundreds of billions have been spent. Switzerland has grown richer. Africa has languished. It is time for a new approach.

But there is one further danger. Gentle in manner, Paul Wolfowitz is always ready to see good in those he deals with. In Messrs Blair and Brown's case, that would be a mistake.

It is to be hoped that the World Bank's new president realises just how shallow and cynical the two British politicians can be. Their aim for the Gleneagles summit is to ensure that Bob Geldof does not hog all the glamour. They will not mind if the G8 ends with relieved African leaders ordering some more G4 planes. So Mr Wolfowitz needs to assert himself and to prove that he will not accept second best for Africa.

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