Richard Dowden: Fairer trade, more aid and debt relief are not really the answer to Africa's problems

No development can happen in African countries unless African governments want it to happen


Sweeping up the pieces from 2005's Year of Africa is like picking up the wrapping paper from the Christmas presents. The shiny promises and the tinsel rhetoric are now separated from the reality and lie crumpled and exposed. Who on earth gave that? What was in that wrapping? Did you get what you wanted - or what someone thought you wanted?

You may be tempted to go back through the rubbish bags to find that promised present that somehow seems to have gone missing. But there's not a lot you can do, the party is over and the world has, as our leaders might say, moved on. It would be a tragedy if we allowed our leaders to move on. If the media, especially the BBC, reverted to skimpy stereotyped programmes and articles about Africa, having done so much this year to broaden our understanding of the continent in all its complexity.

The task now is to try to hold the G8 leaders to their promises, keep the European Union to its new commitments to Africa, the United Nations to the Millennium Development Goals and make Tony Blair implement the recommendations of the Commission for Africa. This will take more energy and commitment in 2006 than all the effort that went into the Make Poverty History Campaign and the Year of Africa in 2005.

For a start there have been a lot of recycled presents this year; promises made again as if new. It is hard to be optimistic that the rest of the world will keep its old promises to Africa or that African governments will start the reforms that will help their countries develop. But having sorted out the new from the recycled, we may be able to agree with Bob Geldof's assessment that this may not be "the end of extreme poverty but it is the beginning of the end".

First the good news. Africa did receive a huge present this year. Not from generous rich countries giving it aid but from China's thirst for raw materials. The resulting rise in Africa's commodity prices; for oil, copper, nickel and rarer metals has brought more income to Africa than all the aid and debt combined.

If money is the answer then Africa is in a far better position than it has been for years. And the trend looks set to continue. This factor was ignored by the campaigners. Led by Geldof and other celebrities, organised by Make Poverty History and encouraged by the British Government, the campaign concentrated on more aid, less debt and a better trade deal for Africa. Tony Blair pinned his hopes for doing something for Africa on this tripod of external assistance.

On aid the rich countries have promised an extra $25bn (£14.5bn) for Africa between now and 2010. It is unlikely they will deliver. Countries such as Spain and Germany will find it hard to double their aid, given their current economic problems. America has also promised more but under strict conditions which will exclude countries that will not or cannot fulfil its stringent conditions, which are - not coincidentally - where a lot of the poorest people live. So American aid will not reach them.

Debt write-off provides even smaller sums; $40bn among 18 countries, 14 of which are African. If their economies turn around that debt relief will help. But some donor countries are taking money for debt write-off out of their aid budgets so debt relief will mean less aid. And almost nothing was delivered on trade at the Hong Kong talks. There will be no move on agricultural subsidies, the one issue on the table that does have a serious impact on most African countries, for another seven years. Africa can already trade almost anything else into the rich world but its basic problem is that it does not produce goods of the right quality and quantity.

There is an emerging consensus that, while more aid, debt relief and a better trade deal could speed up African development, they have been grossly oversold as the answer to Africa's problems. Indeed the campaigners presented lack of aid, debt and unjust trade conditions as the cause of Africa's poverty. The truth is these factors were marginal in causing Africa's economic failure. Conversely more aid, debt relief and a better trade deal will only be marginal in helping African countries turn their economies around.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that no development can happen in African countries unless African governments want it to happen. Is that happening? The news from the continent is mixed. The body charged with co-ordinating the follow up to this year's commitments is the African Partnership Forum, a huge unwieldy committee of representatives of Africa and the donor countries. The African organisation that acts as co-ordinator for the whole continent is Nepad, the New Partnership for Africa's Development, which is described as a vision and a strategic initiative for Africa's renewal.

The vision is fine, but to check on the pace of implementation one has only to look at the Nepad website and click on Latest News. The most recently posted item is dated 7 June.

Behind Nepad lies a strategic deal between Africa and the rest of the world, a promise to reform from Africa and a promise to help from the rest of the world. If the news from the Nepad secretariat website looks less than urgent, the news from African countries also shows little sign of change. Individual African countries still seem to be in the grip in the same winner-takes-all-in-a-zero-sum-game that caused Africa's poverty in the first place. The bright hopes of the past decade seem to be going backwards.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who served on Tony Blair's Africa Commission, has locked up thousands of political opponents after an election did not go his way. President Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, has changed the constitution so he can continue to rule and has locked up his chief challenger. Members of Kenya's government chased into exile the official in charge of anti-corruption and abolished his post. In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo looks set to change the constitution so he can run again. He has backed some good initiatives but done little to build up Nigeria's weak institutions. And while people in the vast heart of Africa, Congo, last week demonstrated in a huge turn out in a referendum that they wanted a decent government, the country's politicians show no sign of creating a system designed to hold the country together.

The two lessons of 2005 are that campaigners should not over simplify the problems or the solutions and politicians should not be tempted to embrace "winners" nor write off "losers".

What Africa needs from the outside world is long-term, consistent commitment, not dramatic gestures driven by emotive pictures. The Big Push of 2005 has got to turn into a Long Haul - maybe for decades, a commitment to remain engaged with Africa and its problems.

The writer is Director of the Royal African Society

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