Jonathon Porritt: What the West can learn from the best of Africa

Renewable energy schemes are foolishly regarded by the 'First World' as some kind of second-best option

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Question: what's the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word Africa? Answer: basket case. Indeed, so pervasive is this chronic "basket-case syndrome" that good news from Africa just isn't believable for most people. Fixed images of starving children and collapsing ecosystems just won't be budged.

Question: what's the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word Africa? Answer: basket case. Indeed, so pervasive is this chronic "basket-case syndrome" that good news from Africa just isn't believable for most people. Fixed images of starving children and collapsing ecosystems just won't be budged.

It is true that the lives of more than 20 per cent of Africans are still adversely affected by wars. HIV/Aids continues to have a devastating effect on millions. Corruption is endemic in many countries. And the numbers of people without access to drinking water, sanitation, proper health care and primary education defy belief in the 21st century.

Against this tide of statistical misery, the enduring optimism of thousands of African and Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can appear fantastical. What difference, for instance, can the 70 or so projects supported by Tree Aid in 14 of Africa's poorest countries possibly make against such a backdrop?

On one level, it must of course be limited. Even millions of tree seedlings and 18,000 people trained in nursery management, planting techniques and soil conservation are vanishingly small achievements set against the overall need for community reforestation schemes of this kind across the continent as a whole.

But at another level, such grass-roots schemes send an important signal to the West. The achievements of people like Agali ag Hamey – the 12-year-old boy featured in The Independent's report last week from Timbuktu who has adopted a eucalyptus seedling that he attentively waters each day – are not just inspiring in their own right, but proxies for a rural renaissance in developing countries the world over.

The British Government is playing its part. Of all Western leaders, Tony Blair has done most to keep Africa in our mind; Clare Short has battled to make the case for increased aid – which for Africa will be increased to around £1bn a year from 2006; and Gordon Brown has shamed his G8 counterparts into taking debt relief seriously. All will have a profound effect.

But what mixed messages they still manage to send out. Mr Blair has hitched his commitment to Africa to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which most African NGOs see as a top-down, neo-liberal model of large-scale development that will do little to help Africa's poorest. And Ms Short takes every opportunity to assert that poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability are mutually exclusive, in the face of the evidence from her own department and countless successful projects.

Renewable energy schemes are regarded by the "First World" as some kind of second-best option. Whereas, in truth, this is an area where the "Third World" has something to teach us – particularly given own utterly pathetic record on promoting renewable energy here in the UK.

Take the ambitious "rural electrification" schemes. It's not just that progress has been slow – at present rates, for example, it will be over 400 years before every Kenyan home is wired to the grid – it's that, even where they make progress, such schemes rely on expensive fossil fuels or unreliable mega hydro plants. Neither is sustainable. Yet it's these schemes that Nepad focuses on.

For Africans, sustainable development makes sense. Whether it takes the form of a new type of cooking stove that consumes just a fraction of the wood that's normally needed; a solar panel pulsing power to computers in a remote rural school; or a pump bringing water to dried-out fields – all such schemes share some vital common factors. They improve people's health, their quality of life and their prospects of making a decent living from the land – so avoiding the need to drift to city slums.

Renewable energy can curb forest destruction, reduce soil erosion, cut down massively on the use of polluting fossil fuels, and provide organic fertiliser for hungry fields. It can free women from drudgery collecting firewood, and save them and their children from the deadly effects of smoky stoves, which kill millions each year.

By giving light to study by when the day's work is done, it can help to secure an education. It can power grain mills, workshops, phones or fridges, plugging the most remote rural backwater into some of the benefits of the global economy. It can help poor farmers make the shift from subsistence to surplus. And it gives communities far greater control, even ownership, of their energy supply. Not to mention the important contribution such a strategy would make to avoiding emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Basket case? Crucible of grass-roots development that will transform the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans? In today's connected, interdependent world, it's not just their choice, but ours too.

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