Promise of aid in Africa is one thing, but real development quite another

Bob Geldof Launches 'Our Common Interest' Book

In 2004, one year before the UK was preparing to host the G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland, a group of the most influential British Africans gathered at Cumberland Lodge, a majestic 17th-century manor house in the rolling Berkshire countryside.

Along with African dignitaries, diplomats and activists, Live Aid veteranBob Geldof came to talk about his work with Tony Blair’s Commission forAfrica, which would make recommendations to the G8 on alleviating African poverty.

The evening began with discussions about the role of the UK’s African community in shaping pro-Africa policies. It ended in a shouting match that nearly descended into a fistfight.

Over dinner Geldof had given a speech in which he accused the African guests of being lazy fatcats. “Just look at you, sitting on your fat arses, while children in your countries starve,” he said.

“Geldof was very rude and condescending,” said Debbie Ariyo, director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse and one of the guests who confronted Geldof at Cumberland Lodge. “To me this was part of a pattern that was keeping African perpetually down as the begging continent.”

The Cumberland Lodge debacle underlined the strength of feeling about Africa in the runup to Gleneages. Geldof was organising the Live 8 concerts that would be watched by 3 billion viewers around the world, coinciding with the Make Poverty History movement advertised by 8 million Britons wearing white wrist bands.

The Gleneagles gathering ended with some substantial commitments, including writing off the $40bn debt owed by 18 of the world’s poorest countries and delivering an extra $25bn in aid to Africa.

The first pledge achieved a long-lasting impact. “The Make Poverty History campaign did make brilliant progress on debt forgiveness,” said Myles Wickstead, head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa at the time. “Writing off Africa’s debt created savings of $1bn (£638m) per year and straight away allowed more children to go to school.”

The Gleneagles meeting also marked a turning point in attitudes towards development and the role Africans should play in determining their own future. In the years since 2005, fortunes have changed for many African countries.

Six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies of the past decade are in sub-Saharan Africa. Those include the 10 “lions” – including Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana and Uganda – that have benefitted from debt cancellation, a 10-fold increase in foreign direct investment, reductions in child mortality and increases in literacy. Across the world, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 43% of the world’s population in 1990 to 21% in 2010.

But many say that the decisions taken at Gleneagles played a marginal role in these changes, with only $11bn of the $25bn promised to Africa at the meeting ever reaching the continent.”The pledges were hardly met. When Russia hosted the summit in 2006 the following year, the momentum was lost,” said Juma.

The gap in aid is one explanation for the failure of many countries to make progress. A report by campaign group ONE analysed the progress of individual countries since 2000 against eight development targets found that in a number of African countries, including Botswana, Kenya, Chad, DRC and Zimbabwe the situation has actually worsened. Education is one sector where the lack of aid is most marked, experts say. A UNESCO report this month found that 57 million children around the world were out of school in 2011, with half of those in sub-Saharan Africa. Oil rich Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world.

Others say that the vast earnings made by many African countries from oil, gas and mining show that the focus on aid to Africa is misguided. “We should be doing a lot more to get Africa to develop itself,” said Ariyo. “Take the case of my country, Nigeria. It benefited from debt relief and has huge oil resources, but Nigeria is in more debt now than it was in 2005, and that is because of corruption.”

Efforts to reform oil, gas and mining deals are under way. In 2010 the US passed a law that requires oil companies to publish payments to African governments, and Canada voted this week to do the same. The EU parliament is now also moving towards requiring European extractive companies to comply with stricter transparency regulations.

But experts say development funding can drive transparency in Africa. “Transparency is a necessary condition for tackling tax evasion and corruption,” said Kevin Watkins, director of the Overseas Development Institute. “But this has to include financing to build their capacity and their self-empowerment.”


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