development poverty

Our common interest – the Commission for Africa

In 2004 Tony Blair convened his Commission for Africa, a group that included the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, President Mkapa of Tanzania, the governor of the Bank of Botswana, a number of African business people, Gordon Brown, and Bob Geldof.

The commission met in a series of meetings, aiming to analyse what works and what doesn’t in development in Africa, and delivered their report in 2005. I found it going for £1 in a book sale last week, and four years on, I thought it would be interesting to see what progress has been made.

The Commission for Africa was ground breaking, and worked on good principles, such as the idea that Africa must lead its own development. The report is angry and passionate, describing the contrast between life in the rich countries and in Africa as “the greatest scandal of our age.” Although it generally refrains from naming and shaming individual countries, it doesn’t shy away from the difficult issues – corruption and culture on the Africa side, selfish trade and tied aid on the other. It’s not afraid to consider innovative solutions, such as ‘hybrid’ governments that combine democracy with tribal councils.

The report’s recommendations are broad ranging, and it’s heartening to see that a good number of them were immediately taken up. It recommends an independent monitoring body to oversee progress on development. That’s here.

It called for better control of small arms. One of Gordon Brown’s first actions as Prime Minister was to tighten the laws on small arms and close the Defence Export Services Organisation, the state-owned arms exports department.

Doubling aid was another big ask, and the UK has made progress on raising its aid budgets, although the current economic crisis may put the brakes on that, of course.

On the other hand, the report calls the industrialised world “a wilful obstacle” on the issue of trade. Rich nations’ trade barriers are “politically antiquated, economically illiterate, environmentally destructive and ethically indefensible”, it says. Subsidies should be stopped, and trade barriers should be scrapped. Most importantly, “trade liberalisation must not be forced on Africa as a condition of trade or aid negotiations.” Unfortunately, despite having Blair confidant Peter Mandelson as the EU trade commissioner for four years, precisely nothing has changed at the WTO, and Africa is worse off than before.

Another recommedation was that “rich countries should put in place a series of measures to make theft of national assets more difficult and deter their own companies from paying bribes in the first place.” As we’ve written about before, the UK has really dragged its feet on calling its companies to account on corruption.

The legacy of the Africa Commission has been mixed. It prompted some action on Africa within the UK, but failed to capture the attention of the EU more broadly, or the US. How it was received in Africa, I don’t know. Once the economic crisis started to bite, Africa has really fallen off the agenda again.

Ultimately it disappoints because the commission is a victim of its own ambition, calling for more action than the world was prepared to deliver. “Piecemeal solutions are doomed to fail” they say, “a big push is required on many fronts at once.” As William Easterly has pointed out, the only proven aid initiatives are actually the “effective piecemeal” ones. All the big plans have come to nothing – by being ‘all or nothing’ plans, they never get the international impetus they require. The Commission for Africa has gone the same way.

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