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The post-2015 debate: was Tony Blair right about Africa?
1 October 2013

As world leaders gathered in New York last week for the 86th United Nations General Assembly, the crucial question of how to alleviate poverty in Africa and elsewhere was once again hotly debated. This was with the need in mind to formulate new plans, as the Millennium Development Goals are set to expire in 2015.

Last Tuesday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who characteristically lashed out at some Western actors for ignoring African Union positions on Africa, said money from newly found oil and gas reserves would now be used to transform Uganda’s economy. He criticised aid donors, saying, ‘although useful, this external funding was limited, slow in coming, not always focused and erratic’.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, however, indicated aid would still be important to Africa in the future. He said rich countries should not forget their ‘historical responsibilities’ and urged them to stick to their pledge of using 0,7% of gross national income to assist poor nations. ‘We are aware of the challenges in the North due to the economic meltdown, but are of the view that investing in development in the South, especially in Africa, is of primary importance as a source of much-needed sustainable development and stability in the world,’ Zuma told the heads of state.

Looking back at the last decade and the progress made towards improving the lives of Africans, at least relative to what it was before, some do agree with Museveni that aid was neither really forthcoming nor very effective. However, figures on the link between aid and growth published by Reuters earlier this month in an article entitled ‘In Africa growth story, don’t forget aid’, indicate that Museveni might not be entirely fair towards donors. The figures show that aid in the last decade might have, at least partly, contributed to the current high growth rates experienced in several African countries. Thus ‘Africa Rising’ is not only the effect of increased exports of raw minerals from Africa and more private sector investment; aid had something to do with it.

Based on these figures, one may rightfully ask: was Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the right track in his approach to tackling poverty in Africa back in 2005?

At the time of the Gleneagles G8 summit, which Blair hosted in July of that year, he insisted that increasing aid to Africa would make a significant impact on the continent’s future. He advocated not only increasing aid, but almost doubling it and giving it to governments, rather than the thousands of small non-governmental organisation (NGO) projects doing good around the continent. This wasn’t his own idea, of course, but the outcome of a drawn-out process undertaken by the Commission for Africa and its numerous researchers and consultants. The Commission included personalities well known for their opinions on this issue, such as former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South African Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manual.

At the same time, the Make Poverty History campaign, led by pop stars Bono and Bob Geldof, propelled the project into the limelight, but also, some would argue, turned it into a very Eurocentric attempt at ‘saving Africa’.

In a lengthy defence of his policy published in The Observer in March this year, Blair said the immense progress made in Africa over the past five years was largely due to donors’ willingness to put their hands deeper into their pockets to help struggling nations to develop. ‘The financial commitments made by the rich countries in 2005 were historic and, while they haven’t always been fully met, the money which has arrived has improved hundreds of thousands of lives.’ Aid also helped improve countries’ capacity to stimulate growth and trade, he said. ‘Africa is among the fastest-growing regions in the world. The Gleneagles agreement can claim some credit for this; bilateral aid for trade to sub-Saharan Africa has almost doubled between 2005 and 2011.’

The Commission for Africa’s strategy – a more government-to-government approach and a doubling of aid – was certainly a departure from the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s. Figures indicate that aid did increase massively in the past decade – parallel with the increase in the exports of oil and minerals. Reuters puts the figure at a total of $46 billion that flowed into the coffers of various countries in 2011. Certain countries, of course, got more than others. ‘Rwanda and Mozambique both saw net aid from rich donor countries roughly triple between 2000 and 2011 – in the case of the former from $341 million to almost $1,3 billion, close to 18 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Western aid to Ethiopia soared almost four-fold [from] $906 million in 2000 to a peak of over $3,8 billion in 2009,’ reports Reuters.

This increase in aid to Africa also, importantly, coincided with a much greater awareness of accountability in the public sector and the correct use of aid. In this regard the work done by civil society organisations and the various donor institutions of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-countries has been significant.

Who and what is responsible for the current strong growth rates in Africa will be an ongoing debate and it is never clear how much of the aid has actually ended up in the right hands. Figures announced at global summits are always somewhat opaque. When world leaders promise aid to a particular country, it is never entirely clear whether this is new money, whether it is bilateral aid and under what conditions it will be disbursed and by whom.

One thing is clear, however: apart from funds to help post-war collapsed states like Mali or Somalia (not surprisingly also those potentially harbouring an Islamic extremist threat), aid is drying up. President Zuma and South Africa are very aware of this, especially after a recent decision by the United Kingdom to discontinue its aid to the country. African countries that have benefited from the post-Gleneagles largesse shouldn’t continue counting on it.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant

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