Africa aid: where any myth will do

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Apatronising double standard is sometimes evident in western attitudes to African development. With poor countries elsewhere, progress is declared when real help from outside has produced concrete improvements. For the world’s poorest continent, it often seems success enough to have “put Africa on the agenda”.

As Tony Blair returns from his valedictory African trip, and as the second anniversary of the Group of Eight meeting at Gleneagles rolls around, it is only on the latter view that his years of emoting about the continent counts as anything but a failure. Neither the aid the British prime minister promised nor the trade agreement he oversold has materialised. His interventions in African politics have mainly been either ineffectual or actually damaging.

Mr Blair staked a great deal on the aid promises he wrung out of fellow heads of government at Gleneagles. Five of those leaders have now left office, rendering his stunt of making them personally sign the communiqué redundant, and their successors evidently find Mr Blair’s moral indignation less than compelling.

Official aid figures for 2006, published in April, showed the value so far of those promises: nil. Though the UK’s own aid rose, overall aid to Africa was static the year after the great leap forward. (The ballyhooed Gleneagles deal on debt relief, by the way, was minimal, worth only about 1 per cent of total annual global aid and paid for out of existing aid budgets.)

In truth neither more aid nor even a trade agreement is an elixir of poverty reduction for Africa. The prime minister’s simplistic emphasis on both is evidence of too much time spent hanging round with rock stars.

He has continued, for example, to tout the Doha round of trade talks as a big deal for Africa in spite of an emerging consensus among trade economists that a deal, even if it does happen, will do little for the continent. Africa already has the best trade access in the world. (These fallacies will not depart with Mr Blair: Gordon Brown, his successor, is equally prone to mis-sell aid and Doha.)

Mr Blair wheels out myths venerable with age about terrible European trade barriers against Africa, including the whiskery old whopper about the European Union allowing in raw cocoa beans but taxing imports of chocolate.

And while emoting about Africa is one thing, spending political capital on it is another. Mr Blair has shown little willingness to do the latter, with the exception of the brave and honourable decision to send British troops into the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000. The next year he overruled his Department for International Development and approved an export licence for an absurdly expensive and unnecessary air traffic control system for Tanzania, which would have cost half the country’s annual debt relief, just to make another sale for BAE Systems.

Rightly, aid donors are always urging African leaders to confront entrenched interests at home and push through economic reform or cut wasteful spending. Wrongly, Mr Blair could not find the backbone to take on his own. The one time a decision had to be made that might have cost him political capital with the UK’s military-industrial complex, he turned his back on Africa and went with the arms dealers.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Mr Blair’s judgments about African politics are so wrongheaded. He ignored warnings from officials across Whitehall and promoted Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, as a dynamic young leader and appointed him to the Commission for Africa set up ahead of Gleneagles. (Just what Africa needed, by the way: another commission.)

Its report, which was no more than an elegant recapitulation of existing wisdom, was published in March 2005. By December, after Ethiopian human rights abuses had grown too blatant to ignore, the UK rightly cut off budget aid to Mr Meles’s government.

It generally takes at least four years for an African leader to go from donor darling to development dud. Together the dynamic, progressive Mr Blair and the can-do, go-ahead Mr Meles managed to telescope the process into less than one. It is unclear that accelerating disillusionment constitutes progress.

Africa needs more than to be “put on the agenda”. It has been on dozens of agendas down the decades. Nor does it need to be “put on the map”. For the confused, it’s the big wedge-shaped continent south of Europe. It needs courageous leadership in Africa and consistent support from outside. Mr Blair’s posturing has provided neither.

The writer is the FT’s world trade editor

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