Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa

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“It is naive to assume that the glaring global economic inequalities are mere accidents of history, divorced from the dictates of political and economic interests. If anything, it is the policies of the rich countries that have strangled the economies of the poor countries.” -Sipho Seepee, writing in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
One of the biggest events of the development calendar in recent years was the launch on May 4, 2004 of the Commission for Africa, that was initiated by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The new commission draws inspiration from the Brandt Commission, a panel spearheaded by the former German Chancellor, Willy Brandt in the early 1980s, which set out a similar plan for global development.
Earlier at the beginning of the 1970s, the Pearson Commission’s Report, PARTNERS IN DEVELOPMENT had also received a rave review in many quarters, and was even hailed in the developing countries, as ushering in a new era, in the words of Abdurrahman Muhammed Babu, “a sort of turning point, in international cooperation for development.” So from the Pearson Commission and the Brandt Commission leading up to the new Blair Commission, a lot has happened to the African peoples and societies. A feeling of dejavu is very appropriate here. We shall come back to this premise later.
But back to the Blair Commission for Africa. It is interesting to note the broadly ambitious canvas that was painted for the work of the commission. Blair had outlined that it would look at
“economic issues, education, conflict resolution, health, the environment, HIV/AIDS and governance.” Tony Blair was very worried about the depressing nature of the statistics in respect of the African condition. “Africa,” he pointed out, “is the only continent to have grown poorer in the last 25 years.”
Furthermore, Africa’s “share of world trade has halved in a generation and it receives less than 1% of direct foreign investment. Forty four million children do not go to school, millions die through famine and disease or conflict and Africa risks being left behind.”
The gloomy picture of Africa’s underdevelopment was further taken up when Tony Blair visited the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa in October, 2004 for the second session of the Commission for Africa. Blair took a look at the world of the early 21″ century, which he described as “a time of unprecedented wealth and opportunity for the world.” Africa is however not within the frame of wealth and opportunity, because “Africa has not enjoyed the progress which other parts of the world have seen Tony Blair, a sincere Christian, if a leading imperialist politician, took a moral attitude to the despair which faces the African continent, and concludes that “this is wrong”. “It is wrong,” he went further, “that somebody’s chances in life depend so starkly not on their talents or ambitions or how hard they work, but on where they are born….. That is why NGOs from all over the world, in Africa itself, in Europe, in Asia and North and South America – are joining together to call on world leaders to Make Poverty History. That must be our aim. So there is a moral cause.
But there is a strategic purpose involved in this latest act of generosity for the African peoples. One that falls within the security calculations of the imperialist regimes of Great Britain and the United States. Blair adds that “we know that poverty and instability leads to weak states which can become havens for terrorists and other criminals.”
He then used the platform to draw Africa into the orbit of geo-political security concerns of the Western nations more firmly. “Even before 9/11,” Blair declared, “Al Qaeda had bases in Africa. They still do. Hiding in places where they can go undisturbed by weak governments, whilst they plan their next attack – which could be anywhere in the world, including right here in Africa, as we have seen. For these reasons, because it is morally right and because it is in our own interests, It is clear that Africa deserves the attention of the rest of the international community.” Membership of the commission is broad-based, drawing in members as diverse as the musician Bob Geldof, K.Y. Amoako, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa; South African Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown and Nigeria’s own Fola Adeola.
They are seventeen men and women from government, business and civil society from around Africa and the rest of the world. Their job is to look at the evidence and then produce a comprehensive plan, for how the international community can support African development. It is expected that their report would be published this year.
Already, according to Blair, a few basic steps to help Africa have been taken by Britain to lead the way by doubling its aid budget, so that “he UK would reach the 0.7% UN target by 2013.” It would also invigorate the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative along with other elements of debt relief as well as “action to open up opportunities for business in Africa to grow faster by trading with the rest of the world.”
It seems that despite the moral burden that Tony Blair has decided to carry in respect of the African condition, not much is likely to change, because the conceptualisation of the problems of the African societies has not shifted from the dominant paradigm located in its integration within the world capitalist system, a process that has been under way over the past five centuries or so. Blair, as a leading spokesperson for the Western world, does not see Africa’s route out of the morass, other than the beaten path of further integration into the process.
From an African perspective however, it is pertinent to examine the basic assumptions that underline the frankly racist, neo-Malthusian wielding of statistics about the condition of the African peoples. This is not because we dispute the veracity of the gloomy picture painted, but because they have been extracted largely as if there is something intrinsically wrong with Africans. But history teaches that Africa’s state of underdevelopment is largely a product of its integration within an externally-responsive globalisation process that is to the benefit of the advanced capitalist countries, and to the detriment of the African peoples.
This process was deconstructed effectively in a post-script to Walter Rodney’s HOW EUROPE UNDERDEVELOPED AFRICA, which was written by the African Revolutionary Intellectual, Abdurrahman Muhammad Babu, in 1971. Writing against the backdrop of the launch with so much fanfare of the UN’s Second Economic Decade, a launch which included an appeal to the developed countries to be charitable and contribute ‘1% of their national income’ for helping the developing countries, “as if,” in the words of Babu, “the population of the world can continue to condone poverty so that the rich can be charitable!”
Babu leaning on the experience of the continent during the 1960s had posited that the 1970s “will experience the same disappointments which climaxed the end of the sixties.” As we all now know, the seventies did not deviate from the gloom of the earlier decade, and would give way to the gloomier pictures of the 1980s; the 1990s called Africa’s lost decade and the new millennium, despite the different commissions, such as the Pearson, and the Brandt commissions.
Babu had asked what was wrong. “Is it inherent in the very nature of underdevelopment that makes development such an impossible task?” He felt that it was urgent to explore the issues, because the African peoples have borne the whole burden of all the difference experiments, imposed from outside our continent, mainly by the Western world. Africa’s problem is rooted in the inability of its elite, especially those with access to power, to ask fundamental questions or even understand the need for those questions.
It is this reality which keeps us in a vicious circle of entrapment within the dominant paradigm that reinforces our dependency and deepens our underdevelopment. Take the issue of ‘foreign investments’ that has become the reigning mantra under the neo-liberal orthodoxy of recent times. Babu had located it within the history of African colonial underdevelopment, when he asked pertinently that “are we not underdeveloped now because we have been colonised in the past”?
He went further to explain that “there is no other explanation to the fact that practically the whole of the underdeveloped world has been colonised either directly or indirectly by the Western powers. And what is colonialism if it is not a system of ‘foreign investments’ by the metropolitan powers? If it has contributed to our underdevelopment in the past is it not likely to contribute to our underdevelopment now, even if the political reins are in our hands?” These were thoughts that disturbed an African patriot as long ago as 1971, when those lines were written. In the thirty four years since then, the African cloud has become gloomier. The capacity of the African state to play a decisive role in the development process has been eroded by a combination of factors, the most important being the conversion to the neo-liberal paradigm. Unfortunately the underlining crisis remains unattended to.
For example, our economies retain the distortion inherent in production for a so-called world market, which in the words of Babu, was “founded on the hard rock of slavery and colonialism.” and therefore our economies have remained colonial. The more we strive to produce for that market, the more of African resources are diverted from people’s development.
The material and technical base of our economies are responsive only to what the Western world is prepared to buy and sell, and not responsive to our internal needs.
It is important to underline that this unacceptable state of African affairs has been compounded by the debt crises. Africa owes about $300 billion, but its debt is much graver than that of other regions of the world, for three reasons. First, the ratio of Africa’s total debt to export earnings has been rising more rapidly than those of other regions; secondly, the ratio of Africa’s total debt to Gross National Product (GNP) has grown rapidly and thirdly, despite incurring the highest borrowing growth rates, sub-Saharan African economies have grown slower than those in other developing countries.
These are the fundamental issues of the African condition. These fundamentals are not within the purviews of the Blair Commission for Africa. Blair wants some palliative that might ease the pains but above all, aid the strategic interests of the imperialist countries. The African condition must be overturned by the African peoples, within the context of our felt needs. Blair’s Commission will go the ways of others before it, because it is not the way to liberate Africa from underdevelopment.
It is important to make the point that Africa cannot break the vicious circle of underdevelopment by relying on the charity of the political and economic forces of the Western world. These forces have largely defined the premise which ensured the underdevelopment of our continent as a result of the exploitative relationships that we entered into with them over several centuries. The truth is that they have benefited and continue to benefit from the extant state of affairs, and beyond window dressing, are not going to change the fundamentals.
The new-found concern of recent times must be understood within the context of contemporary strategic considerations of the imperialist powers, especially in the post-9/11 world. The American imperialists have defined the world in the frame of a war against terror. They also realise that the economic regimes imposed on the African countries from the mid-1980s, encapsulated in Structural Adjustment Policies have weakened the corrupt, post-colonial states all over Africa.
The alienation of the peoples of our continent from a non-caring state provides a fertile ground for the emergence of non-state actors that might unleash new forms of violence and terror, inimical to imperial interests in Africa. This is the context within which the Blair Commission must be understood. Africa’s basket case must be alleviated for its sake, but above all, for the interest of the security of the Western world. Not much can come out of this type of mind set.

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