Cameron Duodu: Why Europe cannot afford to neglect Africa

Africa's economic mess did not occur by accident. The situation was man-made, and man must solve it

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Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whatever their motives, have succeeded in arousing a lot of interest in Britain about Africa. Brown's proposal that Britain should help to repay some of the debts Africa owes to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is particularly ingenious, and Brown should increase Britain's contribution from a niggardly 10 per cent of what is owed to at least 25 per cent.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whatever their motives, have succeeded in arousing a lot of interest in Britain about Africa. Brown's proposal that Britain should help to repay some of the debts Africa owes to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is particularly ingenious, and Brown should increase Britain's contribution from a niggardly 10 per cent of what is owed to at least 25 per cent.

To those who think that Blair and Brown's idea of a Marshall Plan type of programme to rescue Africa from poverty would be a waste, Africans would like to say this: Africa's economic mess did not occur by accident. Europe conquered Africa militarily and made itself rich by acquiring the continent's raw materials cheaply, turning them into expensive manufactured goods and then selling them at a huge profit to the rest of the world.

Europe also kidnapped millions of African people and turned them into slaves who were forced to plant sugar, tea, tobacco and cotton in North America and the Caribbean. Many of the huge fortunes that were made by merchants in such cities as Liverpool, Bristol and London had their origins in this "triangular trade" - profits on slaves from Africa; profits on tea, sugar and tobacco from North America and the Caribbean; and finally, profits made on manufactured goods exported from Europe.

Meanwhile, the African economy, denuded through slavery of much of the virile labour that should have served as the engine for its own growth, decayed. The forcible seizure of African lands by white colonialists and the imposition on them of customs restrictions (where none had existed before) stultified intra-African trade.

The political independence that the European colonial powers granted Africa in the 1960s did not alter the pattern of economic relationships between the West and Africa. Those African politicians who saw the need to transform their economies by industrialising paid a heavy price for it: they were often swindled by being sold industries that relied on inputs imported from Europe and which ground to a halt when foreign exchange dried up. Other African politicians were too frightened by the huge sums needed even to attempt to industrialise.

This is why Africa is today caught in the most vicious circle imaginable: it cannot industrialise and add value to its raw materials before it exports them because it is paid only a tiny fraction of what those raw materials are really worth. Further, the puny foreign exchange earnings obtained from the sale of raw materials make it impossible to accumulate capital to purchase machinery to industrialise. Inflation imported from its Western trade partners impoverishes Africa more. When African countries borrow money to buy what they need but cannot produce, they borrow at high interest rates determined by the lenders. Repaying these debts then becomes impossible.

To expect a people caught in the vice-like grip of such economic forces that they cannot control to "get on their bikes" or "hoist themselves up by their own bootstraps" is nonsensical. The situation was man-made, and man must solve it.

A rescue package for Africa must incorporate these features:

* The World Bank and the IMF must set up a fund from which capital can be borrowed to finance factories that add value to African raw materials before they are exported. The West has monopolised the trade in manufacturing for more than 100 years and should be ashamed to fear competition.

* Effective debt relief must be granted to African countries. Countries that apply for debt relief must be required to present a detailed case in favour of the projects on which the money would be spent. This will prevent the money from being gobbled up by corruption.

* Tariffs and subsidies that make African agricultural products uncompetitive in G8 countries must be totally eliminated.

* Every African country should be asked to determine the minimum amount of foreign exchange it needs per year. When its export receipts fall below this level, it should be given a grant to make up the difference.

Helping Africa to help itself does not mean "throwing money at Africa". It will, instead, partly level the international economic playing field. Africa has contributed enormously to the riches of the West. She will do so again given the tools for the job. Neglecting Africa, in an age in which frustration can be exploited to such dangerous ends by the likes of Osama bin Laden, would not be in the enlightened self-interest of the West.

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