Attitudes to poverty in Africa: 1991 to 2009 (updated)
With the agreement of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I have put on my website the text of a confidential despatch that I sent to the then Conservative Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary in early 1991, at the end of the last of my African and Africa-related postings, going back to 1957. The full text of the despatch is now at https://barder.com/1772. The senior official in the FCO then responsible for our relations with Africa had invited me to write some valedictory reflections on that continent before I finally moved on elsewhere (to Australia and then into retirement).
It’s interesting to compare attitudes to Africa and development aid as reflected in and prompting my despatch in 1991, with attitudes now, in 2009. In 1991 a Conservative government was actively engaged in one of its rounds of severe cuts in government expenditure. Africa had largely ceased to command the attention of senior ministers following the completion of British decolonisation, the end of our responsibilities in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1980 and the recently initiated dismantling of apartheid (in which we had been internationally seen as complicit). So aid to Africa, and the maintenance of embassies or high commissions in a wide range of African countries, seemed obvious targets for spending cuts. In the mid 1980s, famine in Ethiopia, forced into public awareness and concern by Michael Buerk, Bob Geldof, and others, had created an awareness of poverty and suffering in Africa and a constituency for humanitarian aid to relieve it. But there was at that time little public pressure for longer-term development aid, and as the Ethiopian famine subsided, so Africa again slipped down the media’s agenda.
For these and other reasons, in 1991 Britain’s development aid record was lamentable — apart from Austria’s, the lowest in the whole European Economic Community; and there was little or no pressure for increasing it substantially, if at all. Africa was anyway being radically down-graded in the British government’s system of priorities. It was alarm and concern over this dismal situation that prompted my despatch.
The despatch, perhaps predictably, was frigidly received in Whitehall. It was given a far more strictly limited domestic and global distribution than was then customary for this kind of document. The sentiments it expressed seemed controversial, even provocative, in the climate of the time; there was some suggestion (as I learned later on the grapevine) that when I wrote it I must have forgotten that there was no longer a Labour government in office at home.
Fast-forward to 2009. Africa’s poverty and pressing development needs have been deep personal concerns of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both of whom have translated their commitments into positive action. Problems aired in my despatch such as the mountain of African debt to rich western countries, and the shortcomings of IMF structural adjustment programmes, have been tackled and largely resolved. Others, such as restrictions on African exports imposed by the CAP and other aspects of EU and global trade policy, while not resolved, are widely acknowledged and there is pressure to address them. Britain now has widely respected aid and development policies and an enviable record of growing and increasingly effective development aid, especially in Africa. Almost nothing in that 1991 despatch would now be regarded as controversial.
However, there are two alarming features of the current scene which echo the concerns in the despatch. First, there is currently a campaign of active scepticism about the efficacy of all western aid to Africa. Dead Aid, a widely read and much praised book by a young African woman economist, Dembisa Moyo, not only asserts that aid to Africa does more harm than good: Ms Moyo actually calls for a decision to terminate all such aid in five years’ time. The book and Ms Moyo’s campaign have incurred damaging criticisms from informed development economists who have demonstrated on the basis of numerous studies, ignored in Dead Aid, that development aid has made a substantial contribution to economic growth and social welfare in Africa and that aid is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for accelerated development. Yet Ms Moyo’s campaign has achieved considerable traction: it obviously resonates with those who would indolently write off Africa (and almost a billion people who live there) as a basket case, and who assert that aid to Africa simply sends good money after bad — preferring to dismiss an abundance of research studies that demonstrate the contrary. The case for aid as one part of a sustained campaign against poverty in Africa, the case which I tried to make in 1991, now, sadly, needs to be made once more.
Secondly, the global recession and the huge levels of government debt being incurred in bailing out collapsed banks and in Keynesian fiscal stimuli of deflating economies will soon force western governments, including Britain’s, to reduce their expenditures and increase taxes in order to reduce unsustainable debt and to preserve creditworthiness. Debt reduction should begin only after it has become clear that we are beginning to emerge from recession: but the UK Conservative opposition, almost universally expected to win a general election within the next 12 months, strongly advocates cutting government spending immediately. Mounting (even though ill-informed) scepticism about the usefulness of development aid to Africa, combined with an incoming Conservative government committed to immediate swingeing cuts in government spending, looks set fair to reproduce in 2010 some of the conditions and attitudes denounced in my 1991 despatch. Fortunately the current Tory shadow international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has publicly declared that a Conservative government will spare development aid from cuts, and committed himself to continued bipartisan approval for the good work of the UK Department for International Development. Let’s hope that my despatch won’t need to be set as compulsory reading for Mr Cameron or Mr Osborne if and when they move across to the government benches in the house of commons some time next year.