No quick fix

Can Live8, G8 and all those promises really make poverty history? WILL BROWN examines the recent period of unprecedented attention on Africa’s development.

The London bombings in July quickly shifted Africa, and debates on debt, trade and aid, away from their unfamiliar position on the front pages. However, there is still a need to take stock of the unprecedented period of negotiation, campaigning and policy changes that led up to the G8 summit in July.

World leaders in Edinburgh

The related issues of aid, debt and trade, and the wider issue of Africa’s development have been around for a long time but rarely have they been the subject of such high-profile, high-level attention as in the months leading up to the G8 summit hosted by Britain.

In some ways, this was the product of an accumulation of pressure built up over time by development organisations and campaigning groups. This is particularly true of the debt cancellation campaign which had an earlier peak of activity five years ago as a result of the Jubilee 2000 campaign. It is also a result of the changing policies of leading donor institutions, such as the World Bank, which since the mid-1990s has moved away from the hard-line neo-liberalism of the preceding decade.

However, the increased profile given to development policy in general, and to policy towards Africa in particular, also owes something to the Labour leadership, with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown investing considerable political energy in these issues. Such commitment was signalled early on in Labour’s time in office with the creation of the Department for International Development and the associated cabinet post, first held by Clare Short and now Hilary Benn.

The specific importance of Africa was emphasised in Blair’s famous post-9/11 speech to Labour Party conference in which he declared: ‘The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world.’ This in turn reflected Blair’s moral and political liberal-imperialist tendencies. As Inderjeet Parmar has argued recently, Blair’s educational background is steeped in a late 19th century Christian liberalism which at that time was a driving force behind the missionary commitment to civilising Britain’s imperial subjects.

In some respects, the ability of aid campaigners and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to push Africa up the political agenda owed something to this very public commitment by Blair and the desire of new Labour to find a popular and progressive foreign policy success in the wake of the Iraq debacle.

Commission for Africa

There have been a number of closely linked initiatives as a result. The broadest of these was the Commission for Africa, set up by Blair in 2004. Made up of 17 members of the great and the good, a majority from Africa, the commission was charged with setting out the development challenges facing the continent and producing a set of clear recommendations to bring about a strong and prosperous Africa. After wide-ranging consultations the commission’s report – Our Common Interest – was published in March 2005.

Among its recommendations it calls for:

• better governance in Africa based on building capacity and accountability

• promotion of peace and security

• deliverance of health and education to all, provision of clean water and attention given to the HIV/Aids epidemics

• an emphasis on the need for greater economic growth, in particular improvements in the investment climate and infrastructure

• a reduction of trade barriers and subsidies by the industrialised countries, and inside Africa an improvement in transport infrastructure and the elimination of internal tariffs and corruption

• an increase in development aid up to an additional US$25 billion per year (made conditional upon good governance in recipient states)

• 100 per cent debt cancellation (conditional on African government policies that are focussed on development, growth and poverty reduction, and on financial transparency).

As such, the commission amalgamated much of the prevailing development wisdom of the day from a variety of different standpoints. Debt cancellation, improved trade access and increased aid have long been long called for by African governments and NGOs; while improvements in investment opportunities have been demanded by business, inside and outside Africa; and calls for liberalisation and good governance have been at the heart of International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies for some time. This allowed the commission, and the likes of Blair and Bob Geldof, to claim that it had taken an objective, holistic view of the problem and produced a coherent package of recommendations. The implication was that ‘all’ that remained was the political will to implement it.

Such essentially technocratic claims – the ‘experts’ have pronounced a resolution to the debates over these issues, we now need politicians to implement that advice – in fact depoliticises the issues at hand. Despite Geldof’s proclamations along the lines of ‘we now know what needs to be done, we just have to do it’, serious questions remain about whether the recommendations would deliver the claimed benefits (a subject too far reaching for me to discuss here), for whom they would deliver benefits, and what political obstacles lie in the way of implementing the recommendations.

Moreover, given the media and political emphasis on what the rich countries in Gleneagles would agree to, the focus quickly narrowed to three core issues – the amount of aid, debt cancellation and trade barriers to African exports – rather than the more complex issues of political and economic transformation inside African countries themselves.

All you need is … political will

This emphasis on the need for political will to implement ‘known’ solutions ran through the deeply confused politics of Live8, a second key event of 2005. Twenty years on from Live Aid, Live8 was intended to increase the pressure on political leaders in the run-up to the Gleneagles summit with concerts in each of the eight G8 nations. In the lexicon of the Live8 believers, unlike Live Aid, ‘Live 8 is about justice not charity’.

However, far from achieving a new awareness about the political issues surrounding African development, Live8 was in some ways a retrograde step. Despite being 20 years on, the overall message was essentially the same: ‘We, the rich west, have to help them, the poor Africans, who are dying.’ (One might have added that ‘you, the general public, are going to have to listen to some toe-curling platitudes from us, ageing, rich rock stars, about what a lot of good we’re doing’). The sense of stasis was added to by the line-up for the concerts, particularly the centre-piece event in London. Not only were the dinosaurs of rock wheeled out – Paul McCartney, The Who, Pink Floyd, U2, Geldof (for goodness sake!) – but not one African act graced the London stage.

Geldof – dinosaur

Damon Albarn (singer with the group Blur) got it about right: ‘If you are holding a party on behalf of people, then surely you don’t shut the door on them… It’s insensitive and it also perpetuates this idea that Africa is separated in some way.’ Live 8, he claimed, treated Africa like it was ‘a failing, ill, sick, tired place… My personal experience of Africa is that yes, I have witnessed all those things there… but it’s incredibly sophisticated – the society and the structure of people’s lives is as sophisticated, if not more sophisticated in some ways, than in the west.’

Far from raising awareness, Live8 seemed to reinforce the idea that Africa is a continent a world away from ‘us’ consisting of nothing but starving, hopeless masses. Needless to say, such subtleties and criticism were not welcome in the certain, dogged world of Geldof and Bono.

Summit to be done

Nevertheless, Live8 did help to build momentum and garner media attention for the core issues facing the G8 summit, and the build up to it at least helped to promote the Make Poverty History demonstration in Edinburgh. Against considerable opposition from some in the European Union, and from the Bush administration, Blair was able to secure some of the Commission for Africa’s agenda:

• increases in aid of £28.8bn (US$50bn)

• cancellation of the debt of the poorest countries in Africa worth £23bn (US$40bn)

• a commitment to work towards cutting subsidies and tariffs on trade.

Of these, the commitment on trade, arguably the most important issue (given the potential effects it could have on economic growth within Africa), was the weakest. Despite allegedly ‘knowing what needs to be done’, reductions in trade barriers and cutting subsidies (particularly in agriculture) are politically very difficult to achieve. Unlike increases in aid, far-reaching changes in trade regimes will entail some serious economic pain for politically-powerful groups, most notably farmers in Europe and the United States. It is no surprise that this issue was effectively kicked into the long grass to be fetched out again when the stalled World Trade Organisation talks begin again later this year.

For his part, Geldof gave the summit ‘10 out of 10 on aid, 8 out of 10 on debt’ and Bono, never one to miss a chance to tug the heart-strings, claimed: ‘600,000 Africans, mostly children, will remember this G8 summit at Gleneagles because they will be around to remember this summit, and they wouldn’t have otherwise’.

The changes on aid and debt are, in fact, modest but probably welcome. On aid, the Africa Commission asked for an increase of US$25bn and the summit delivered this headline figure. However, the BBC’s economics editor, Evan Davies, estimated that in the light of what was promised anyway, things look more modest. Previously, something like 0.3 per cent of G8 national income was promised for aid (to the whole world) and this has now risen to 0.36 per cent by 2010. Given that only about half of any aid ends up in Africa (after administration costs, contracts and so forth) that means an increase of 0.03 per cent on what was on offer already, or more prosaically, about £7.50 per year out of the average British wage.

As far as debt cancellation goes, on one calculation, the G8 pledges amount to about US$1.5 billon per year across all G8 countries, making it a very modest commitment indeed. Furthermore, it comes with strings attached – notably on governance, poverty reduction and liberalisation – which have been in place for some time. Britain claimed that it was pushing hard to ensure that no new conditions were imposed on recipient states, although the G8 communiqué stated that African governments must ‘tackle corruption, boost private sector development, attract investment’, and remove ‘impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign’.

Non-governmental tensions
Such qualifications have exacerbated tensions in the NGO community over how far they go in welcoming British policy achievements in this area. Some, such as Oxfam, have come in for criticism for being too close to the Blair government and, as a consequence, insufficiently critical of it. Others, such as long-time critic George Monbiot, dismissed the deal as simply a continuation of old neo-liberalism. In part such tensions reflect a difference in political strategy – Oxfam clearly seek an ‘inside track’ to influence government.

Even the modest achievements of Gleneagles face an uncertain future. The British government argues that it is seeking to move away from the strident neo-liberal conditionality prevalent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and indeed it has recently revised its formal position on this in favour of broader commitments to human rights and poverty reduction. However, outcomes are not in its hands alone. For a start, collaboration with the IMF and World Bank might prompt some quiet backtracking on this policy, and other donor states, led by Belgium, sought to tighten conditions on debt relief before the ink was even dry on the G8 declaration.

The tenor of the debate leading up to Gleneagles suggested that 2005 represented a unique and temporary opportunity to achieve a breakthrough for African development. Certainly, some issues seem to be up for grabs, and something modest has been achieved. In addition, the Labour government deserves some credit for the political investment it has put into development in general and Africa in particular. But the problem of African development, like development anywhere else, is never likely to be solved with a quick fix.

The Gleneagles G8 declaration can be found here
Development business

The Oxford-based organisation, Corporate Watch, has published a report on the G8 and the recommendations of the Commission for Africa that reveals the extent of business influence and interest in the decisions taken.

Written before the Gleneagles summit, it argues that ‘Big Business couldn’t have got much of a better deal if it had written the [commission’s] report itself. But then that’s actually not far from the truth.’

In a recent speech in London author Lucy Michaels said, ‘From my research into the G8 and the likely outcomes, I have found very little to convince me that, despite the debt relief recently announced, things are really looking up in terms of poverty reduction and social justice in Africa and for climate justice.’

She recalled the words of Haiko Alfeld, Africa Director of the World Economic Forum, who commented that ‘Business has an enormous interest if US$25 billion per year is to flow into Africa… clearly, that will unleash enormous potential and business opportunities on the continent.’

‘Business is clearly thrilled by the outcome of Blair’s Commission for Africa), ‘ she said. ‘It essentially recommends that the continent should embrace free trade and make itself a perfect climate for investment … It totally ignored the strong and unambiguous critiques of forced trade liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation in Africa made by the UK development NGOs.’

Bringing the G8 Home: Corporate involvement in and around the G8 can be found on

1 Comment

  1. Summer 2005 - ILP
    22 January 2009

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