Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Boom Town Prat?

Writes Magnus Linklater:

THERE ARE TWO Bob Geldofs. One is an articulate and persuasive speaker, who commands the attention and respect of world leaders as well as experts in the field of global poverty. The other one is completely mad.

What on earth is he doing, inviting a million people to march on Edinburgh? Did he consult the city fathers first, find out whether the police could cope, or work out whether there were enough Portaloos to go round? What gives him the right to tell children to “bunk off” school for two days, because he believes that protest is more important than geometry? Did he talk to the teachers and ask them what this would do to their classes?
By what lunatic leap of the imagination did he decide to restage Dunkirk and embark a fleet of protesters from France? Did he study the tanker routes or consult the coastguards?

Of course not — he told them afterwards. This is Geldof the licensed fool, and just as the fool is allowed to thumb his nose at the king, so Geldof the demagogue, deploying his charm, his four-letter directness and his Live Aid credentials, can break the rules with impunity, organising mayhem in other peoples’ cities while sheltering behind the all-embracing defence of “making poverty history”. This is not only foolish, it is a disservice to Africa, and Geldof, of all people, should realise that.

Anyone who has heard him speak — as I did in the Scottish Parliament recently — appreciates that he has grasped the arguments about Africa, understands how aid works and how aid, wrongly applied, can make things worse. He knows the argument is not just about money. Over the past 40 years, Africa has received more foreign aid in real terms than the Marshall Plan. Most of this has been swallowed up by corrupt governments and civil wars, leaving millions worse off than before. Geldof is, therefore, in a unique position to explain how the West should tackle poverty, without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Instead, he has buried the explanations beneath a naked appeal to popular outrage. By linking the protest march with his Live 8 concerts, he is presenting two quite separate issues as one. The first is about raising money, the second is about engineering change.

Most of those who descend on Edinburgh will assume from Geldof’s rhetoric that the capitalist West has, through a combination of greed and selfishness, failed the people of Africa; that if only its leaders could be persuaded to give more generously, increasing their share of national budgets and cancelling African debts, then we would no longer, as he puts it, have to “tolerate the 21st century Orwellian vision of people dying on our television screens every night”.

The truth, as he must be aware, is not only more complex, it is deeply troubling for anyone who bothers to think beyond the safe confines of the liberal conscience. It is that President Bush’s hard-edged African policies come closer to finding a solution than those of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Britain argues that Western aid to Africa should be doubled, and some $15 billion worth of loans should be written off. Although channelled through Mr Brown’s proposed International Finance Facility, the funding would still be negotiated directly with African governments, many of which remain as corrupt and secretive as those of the old dictatorships that brought the continent to its knees in the 1970s and 1980s. America, by contrast, is insisting that funds should be channelled only to countries that tackle corruption, improve accountability and reform their banking systems.

Mr Blair’s Africa Commission shies away from this. It concedes that corruption is a problem, but assumes that today’s regimes are more open and honest. “Africa, at last, looks set to deliver,” it pronounces. Yet barely three years have passed since four million people fell victim to civil war in the Congo; an estimated 200,000 have died in Darfur; the economy of once wealthy Zimbabwe has collapsed; corruption is endemic in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Cameroon. To determine from this that Africa has reformed itself is naive to the point of blindness.

If Geldof were to use his huge influence to maximum effect he might say something like this: change in Africa can only begin in Africa itself. Simply pouring more money into the purses of corrupt regimes will do nothing except to inflate their laundered bank accounts in London and Zurich and leave their people starving. Support should be channelled directly to those local areas and those local communities that need help to stand on their own feet, where small farmers and small businesses can thrive if given the incentive to do it, and where there is complete transparency about who owns what and how the money is spent. Only those agencies that have shown themselves to be truly independent of governments will be allowed to administer funds. Only regimes that are prepared to be open and accountable to their own people will receive help. Meanwhile, there is a message for Western nations which the G8 leaders should debate and agree: they must stop dumping their surpluses on Africa and grotesquely subsidising their own industries — the US cotton industry is a case in point.

Instead of requisitioning an army of protesters to descend on Edinburgh, bringing that harmless city to a standstill, Geldof should ask his foot soldiers to stay at home and send the money that they would have spent on travelling to a special account reserved for making small but effective changes to Africa’s faltering democracies. All proceeds from the Live 8 concerts should bypass national governments and go direct to local communities, serviced by reliable agencies. Meanwhile, Geldof the madman should give way to Geldof the far-sighted. Like Malvolio he is “wise enough to play the fool”. He should be clever enough to grow up as well.

There are two tempting but opposite reactions to Geldof, both wrong. The first is to dismiss him as a tiresome, misguided fool on a big ego-trip. The second is to believe that he has all the answers and that it really is easy to solve Africa’s problems by working ourselves up into a good self-righteous lather, listening to Coldplay and haranguing those evil western politicians at the G8 summit.

The answer is somewhere in the middle. You can pour all the money in the world into Africa and it will do nothing other than temporarily salve the conscience of western liberals and inflate the private bank balances of some really unpleasant African regimes.

In this instance, the Americans have it about right. Get tough on the corruption, give people the freedom to start making their own money, and aid can start to mean something.


martpol said...

Not wanting to mention Bob Geldof in two separate posts, I'll keep my comments to the issues at hand!

The problem with media coverage of the Make Poverty History campaign is (as shown in the Times article reproduced here) that it almost exclusively focuses on the giving of aid to Africa. This is only one of the three strands of MPH (and probably the least important). It's true that a large amount of money has landed up in the pockets of corrupt regimes in the past. The pessimistic way of arguing for an aid increase, then, is to say that if only £10 billion of £20 billion 'gets through' to the right people, then doubling the aid budget will mean at least that £20 billion gets through. The other way is to listen to the experts: the UN Development Agency, for example, says that an extra $20 billion a year in aid could solve Africa's HIV/AIDS crisis. Unfortunately, part of the very problem with aid is that countries like the US often 'tie' it to other requirements, like requiring countries to buy from American markets.

Which brings us neatly onto another of the strands of the MPH campaign - and one almost always ignored by the media, presumably because they think that people won't understand it - changing world trade rules. This is absolutely fundamental: if poor countries were actually allowed fair access to rich countries' markets, that would be the fastest way of all to tackle deprivation, therefore reducing the need for foreign aid.

The third strand of MPH is the cancellation of debts. These aren't piffling sums of money (Zambia's annual debt repayments cost more than its national health system) and cancellation can have enormous benefits (e.g. Uganda being able to provide 2.2 million people with clean water).

None of these things exist in isolation. But the media emphasis on aid-giving above all else does help to reinforce the notion that Geldof, Oxfam et al are merely trying to pull at our heart strings and make a play for more 'handouts' to starving children.

Brit said...

“If only £10 billion of £20 billion 'gets through' to the right people, then doubling the aid budget will mean at least that £20 billion gets through” is not a pessimistic argument, it’s a disastrous one. By that logic, it should be £40 billion next year, £80 billion the year after. Further empowering and enriching a corrupt regime is not the way to go. Aid has to be tied to an incentive to change.

This same argument applies to the debt cancellation. Zambia’s debt repayments might be bigger than its NHS budget, but does that mean that if the debt is cancelled, the Zambian government will immediately double its healthcare spend? Of course not. At least, not unless conditions are attached, which they have to be.

On the trade issue, this is a good potted guide to the fair trade (in various interpretations of the term) versus free trade arguments.

Heaven only knows what the answer is, but it’s worth noting that economists almost universally prefer free trade as ultimately benefitting all parties. And if we’ve learnt anything from economic history, it is that artificial tariffs, and support for failing industries, tend to benefit nobody in the long run.

martpol said...

Regarding aid: I agree, I didn't think through that point very well. But the point about the aid being provided not being 'good aid' still stands.

Regarding debt relief: so we should keep developing countries paying us huge sums of money, essentially as punishment for not having 'good enough' economic systems? Surely a little colonialist, if not patronising.

Regarding trade justice: the problem is that rich countries pick and choose which free trade principles they want to use. The enormous agricultural subsidies of the EU (allowing, for example, Welsh milk to be sold at ultra-low prices in Jamaica, destroying local businesses) are not free trade at all.

But at the same time, the World Bank and countries like the USA demand that developing countries apply free trade principles to their own economies (e.g. Ghana can't place a tariff on grain imports, enabling US grain to undercut its own industry) in order to gain access to their markets or secure loans.

What anti-poverty campaigners say is that if rich countries are able to restrict trade, so should poor countries be able to. This would be fair trade, meaning simply trade that is fair, rather than the polar opposite to free trade.

Brit said...

They're not paying huge sums of money, they're re-paying them. That distinction justifies imposing obligations in return for cancelling debt repayments. That's not colonialism, it's realism. It's also morally sound, particularly as the changes are necessary to decrease exploitation and poverty.

I've no problems with your criticism of the inconsistencies and abuses of free trade - the same rules must apply across the board. No countries ought to restrict free trade, including the UK.

martpol said...

"They're not paying huge sums of money, they're re-paying them."

Most debtor countries have already back the full amount they owed plus a lot more, because of hiked interest rates over the years. You may say this is the risk taken by anyone taking out a loan, but the whole debt crisis started in the 1970s when irresponsible oil-rich Western banks lent enormous amounts to anyone who'd take the money (military dictatorships and other corrupt governments included). When interest rates went up (in tandem with a rapid decline in the market for African, Asian and Latin American products), poor countries (many with successor governments in place by now) were left to repay debts at rates which crippled their economies and infrastructure.

Even if they were still repaying money which they'd borrowed, some of the requirements imposed by the World Bank's structural adjustment programmes can hardly be said to be "necessary to decrease exploitation and poverty". For example, when Bolivia was forced to privatise its water supplies, 200,000 people were left without water, a connection fee was charged at the equivalent of the average Bolivian's pay for 8 months, riots broke out and the company concerned is now suing the Bolivian government for breach of contract.

Brit said...

All of which illustates the importance of ensuring that debt cancellation and aid are accompanied by conditions for change, so that the right people benefit.

Brit said...

...Otherwise, a few years down the line we'll hear Chris Martin or his next equivalent complaining about how the west destroyed Africa by giving money to the corrupt governments that currently exist, thus 'washing their hands of the problem' by inflating swiss bank accounts rather than ensuring that the people benefit in the long-term by political and economic change.

martpol said...

I think we have common ground here in that we can agree that countries should be required to do things which are genuinely good for them. The question is, who should decide this and how, given the World Bank/IMF/developed countries' not-so-rosy record in this area? Perhaps we could start by actually letting developing countries join in World Bank discussions as an equal partner.

Brit said...

But then if the governments of the developing countries are corrupt...

God only knows. Geldof and his marching, rockin' worthies shouldn't be allowed near any kind of decision-making, but in raising public awareness and putting pressure on those that are, he is useful.