Tony Blair Saves Africa!

When I was young, naive and ignorant both of humanity’s complexity and my own limitations, I believed I would one day save the world. Once I reached adulthood, I thought, the willpower and abilities I possessed would be sufficient to wipe out poverty and put an end to conflict.

Then I grew up. I slowly realised that the world was not for saving, much less by one individual, and least of all by me. As I studied history, I realised too that the only people who still believed they could save the world having reached adulthood were dictators or madmen, and that their efforts always ended in failure.

It turns out, however, that I grew cynical too soon, and that in reality it is possible for one man to save the world, or at least a large part of it. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, believes that he has singlehandedly rescued Africa from poverty and underdevelopment. In an article on the Guardian website which must be either a push for a Nobel Prize or a pitch for a job at the UN or World Bank, he argues that all of the recent socio-economic improvements that have taken place in Africa resulted from his own focus on increasing international aid (he has nothing to say about the many African countries that have yet to see any improvement).

The beginning of Africa’s salvation, Blair claims, came at the Gleneagles G8 summit which Britain hosted in 2005. His role in the summit was crucial for Africa. As he reports:

Summits with genuine, long-lasting outcomes are rare. But as we started planning for the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005, I saw that it could be one of these rare ones – a summit about changing the world…

I decided to put Africa at the top of the agenda for Gleneagles…And it worked. Today, the positive legacy of that summit is still being felt across Africa: aid was doubled and developing world debt dropped.

Now an increase in aid is not, of course, an end in itself. Large quantities of aid given to Africa over the decades have been squandered on entrenching corrupt elites or padding the overseas bank accounts of dictators, with little impact on the quality of life of ordinary Africans. Gleneagles, however, not only increased the quantity of aid; it apparently dramatically increased its effectiveness. Here is Blair again:

I want to answer the aid sceptics – those who think aid doesn’t work or is all swallowed up in corruption. Look at the facts. In Africa since 2005, the rate of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen by 18%. The proportion of people in Africa living in extreme poverty is down by nearly 10%.

It is undeniable that the latter two sentences are facts, but Blair offers no evidence that they have anything to do with an increase in aid. That they might have had more to do with increased investment in and trade with Africa by China, remittances and ideas sent from the diaspora, high commodity prices, or anything Africans living in Africa might have done is a possibility Blair is either unaware of or, because it does not fit with his messianic self-image, has no interest in highlighting. He even takes the credit for foreign investment. He writes:

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. Foreign direct investment in the continent has increased by 87% in the past 10 years.

Again, no evidence is presented linking aid to fast growth – it is merely hoped that the juxtaposition of the two things will convince the unwary reader. Even Blair’s buddy Bob Geldof doesn’t have the chutzpah to attribute China’s growing influence in the continent to Gleneagles, admitting in an otherwise tub-thumping piece today (in which he refers to Africans as ‘the people you kept alive all those 30 years ago’ and to Africa’s success as ‘Blair’s lasting legacy’) that trade was not discussed at the Scottish summit. Blair, though, is in no doubt. ‘The last decade of development progress was defined by aid,’ he announces.

Blair does admit that despite his efforts Africa is not yet a utopia, and that improvements can still be made. Fortunately, he has the answers for these too. ‘After leaving office,’ he writes, ‘I set up the Africa Governance Initiative to continue my work on that forgotten half.’ The forgotten half refers to ‘the ability of governments in developing countries to get things done.’ In Blair’s world aid alone, or at least the aid he generated, has rescued Africa – the region’s governments have had nothing to do with it and like their people, who have thrived only since he decided to help them, can do little without his assistance.

Blair has one final piece of evidence, in case we remain unpersuaded that he is Africa’s saviour. ‘The very fact that people are still talking about Gleneagles eight years on shows that we were right to be ambitious, to change the debate.’ he writes. We will have to take his word for it that Gleneagles remains the talk of the town, and the argument that noise proves success is at least no flimsier than some of his other contentions. It’s certainly strong enough for the image-conscious Blair, who concludes his article by proclaiming that ‘the journey from Gleneagles to long-lasting development in Africa is not over [there was, it seems, no journey before the summit]. But Africa is on the move and if we keep going on the whole Gleneagles agenda…the continent will be transformed. So I’m proud to say that Gleneagles has turned out to be that rare thing – a summit that matters.’ If anywhere else in the world needs rescuing, they know who to call.

Was the Washington Consensus right?

Michael Clemens and co-authors have just won this year’s Royal Economic Society Prize for a paper on aid’s role in pushing economic growth (ungated version here). It turns out that contrary to previous findings that aid and growth are unrelated, if you allow plenty of time for their results to kick in, certain types of aid do have positive impacts.

With African economies by all accounts booming in the past few years, this got me wondering whether the widely criticised structural adjustment programmes that were imposed on Africa in the 1980s and 1990s in return for World Bank and IMF loans might also come out looking slightly rosier if a time lag were allowed for. With the continent’s recent rise attributed by many to the improvements in macroeconomic policies that structural adjustment aimed to trigger, it may be time for a new look at a policy that most development professionals have written off, and an interesting challenge, too, for economists wanting to win next year’s prize.

Early adopters: Africa’s hunter-gatherer Pygmies go hi-tech to combat loggers

If you were asked to rank the peoples of the world in terms of their enthusiasm for the things of the 21st century, it is a fair bet that Singaporeans, Japanese, the coastal-dwelling communities of America and perhaps Scandinavians would be near the top of your list. Groups like the Amish, Afghanistan’s Taliban, the nomads of the Sahara and the creationists of the American interior are likely to be somewhat further down.

Compared with the hunter-gatherer Pygmies of the Congo Basin, however, these latter groups are novelty fetishists. Said Pygmies not only spurn such commonplace phenomena of the modern world as farming, villages or towns, and houses; they also get by perfectly well without reading, writing, or ever venturing out of their rainforest home. They are, you could be forgiven for thinking, the Luddite’s Luddites.

But in a paper published last March, the anthropologist Jerome Lewis showed a different side to a people who at first glance appear so stick-in-the-mud. The paper is worth reading in full for its exposé of how it is not just rapacious logging companies but also conservationists who are destroying the Pygmies’ traditional way of life, but its most arresting passages describe how these forest-dwellers have embraced modern technology to combat the threats they face.

Logging tramples on the Pygmies’ sacred sites, destroys their favoured campsite locations, and removes vital hunting and gathering grounds (the fencing off of national parks to protect the forests from the loggers has a similar effect). Rates of malnutrition among Pygmies have increased since African governments, in attempting to alleviate poverty at a national level, made it easier for loggers to strip the forests. ‘We who are older notice that all that was in the forest before is getting less,’ complained a Pygmy elder interviewed by Lewis. ‘We used to always find things – yams, pigs and many other things. We thought that would never end. Now when we look we can’t find them any more.’

To counter these blights, the Baka Pygmies of Cameroon and their Mbendjele counterparts in Congo, assisted by a handful of local and international NGOs, have adopted a novel solution. Continue reading

Politicians quick to take advantage of Ghana’s oil windfall

Oil barrel coffin, Ghana (photo courtesy Flickr user What KT Did)


In The Ringtone and the Drum, my recently published book on West Africa, I described how diamonds have proved a curse rather than a blessing to Sierra Leone:

Once the resource curse falls on a country, like a deadly virus it spreads rapidly, crippling its host’s every organ, paralysing its every function. First to suffer are farming and manufacturing. The profits from diamonds (or oil or gold) far outweigh those achievable through agriculture or industry, and it makes economic sense to allow mineral extraction to become the dominant productive activity. Often it becomes the sole productive activity. Diamonds give a country’s leaders more wealth than they ever dreamed of, so they no longer need to worry about other parts of the economy. Minerals become the only way to make a living; everything else is left to rot. As other, more labour-intensive sectors collapse, the majority of the population has no work (the decline of Sierra Leonean agriculture was swift: twenty years after discovering its precious stones, the country had gone from exporting rice to importing it). A chasm opens up, between the rich few with access to mineral wealth, and the poor masses who are shut out.

The masses have no outlet for their frustrations, no way of redressing the balance. While they are growing rich on diamond exports the leaders of a resource-cursed country do not need to agonise over what their subjects think of them. Governments in countries lacking in valuable minerals depend on taxes to keep them in business; without them, ministers would not be paid and the machinery of government could not function. For taxes to be paid, the state must count on at least some degree of support from its citizens, and is to some degree answerable to them – if it ignores their needs entirely, citizens will use non-payment of tax as a bargaining chip. But in diamond-rich economies, governments need nothing from their people; profits from the gems are more than sufficient to keep the leaders in luxury, and their subjects, lacking any leverage over them, have no way of agitating peacefully for a fair share of the pie.

Sierra Leone’s near-neighbour Ghana, the world’s newest oil producer and one of its fastest growing economies, has so far avoided damage to non-oil sectors, but last week brought a worrying sign that politicians are keen to get their hands on oil revenues. By itself, and even though inflation in the country is running at just 9%, members of parliament awarding themselves a 140% pay rise may not be cause for tremendous alarm – Ghanaian MPs’ monthly salary of $3,800 is still much lower than that of their Kenyan counterparts, for example, who trouser a cool $10,000 a month.

But it is difficult to understand why such a pay rise should be backdated to 2009. Such a ruse means that in January next year, lawmakers will receive a windfall of $109,025 (the $2,225 pay rise multiplied by 49 months). Ordinary Ghanaians who are struggling to make ends meet are unlikely to be aware of the full extent of the politicians’ good fortune, but if they did have time to do the calculation they would receive a nasty shock: it would take a Ghanaian on the minimum wage 121 years to earn what MPs have just gifted themselves.

Sympathy for the Devil: Charles Taylor and his Apologists in the West

Photo: BBC

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was last week sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a man with many enemies. As a warlord, he would have expected nothing less – only the most insane of his ilk expect to be universally popular, and whatever else he may be accused of, Taylor’s sanity has never been called into question.

He dispatched his first important foe, his predecessor as Liberian leader Samuel Doe, within a year of beginning the rebellion that would lead him to the presidency. As his army rampaged towards the capital, they gained notoriety for the brutality of their methods – cutting off limbs, enslaving women and boys, torturing children and eating the flesh of their enemies were all on the menu, all endorsed by Taylor. With Doe out of the way, his swansong a home-video recording featuring Taylor’s men slicing off his ears as he begged for mercy, the young warlord then turned on enemies within his own group, precipitating a further six years of civil war. His efforts led to the deaths of over 200,000 people and the physical and psychological maiming of many more, but he has been tried for none of his actions in his homeland.

Taylor did not delay long in internationalising his list of enemies. Sierra Leone’s government had played host to a West African intervention force that was set up to end the bloodshed in next door Liberia. Taylor retaliated, pledging that the people of Sierra Leone would “taste the bitterness of war”. As his trial found, he lived up to his promise by providing financial and operational support to Sierra Leone’s rebel army as it murdered, raped and pillaged its way around the country, as well as planning the horrific 1999 assault on Freetown that was the war’s nadir. Among the atrocities committed in the latter attack were the mass rape of students at the college of nursing, the torture of patients in their hospital beds, the use as human shields of those the rebels had enslaved in the hinterland, and the throwing of live children into burning houses. Taylor’s conviction was celebrated on the streets of Freetown – the words of Musa, an informal medicine seller, who told me in 2010 that ‘Charles Taylor was a wicked man,’ encapsulating the views of many of his compatriots.

But it has not all been isolation and ostracism for Taylor. Throughout his life, he has been able to count on a significant network of friends. Not all of these are the type of friends you would expect to find in the circles of a warlord. Continue reading

Men and Development: Why gender should not just be about women

Last week I was asked to review a new book on gender and development. Since these things are usually turgid affairs, full of abstruse jargon (“registers of governmentality”, “idioms of sexualness” and “body reflexive practices” are just a few of the assaults on English perpetrated in this one) and nostalgia for the marxist utopias of yore, I was apprehensive. I envisaged long days of ploughing laboriously through paragraphs, trying heroically to decipher “essentially hetero-normative constructions”, “emergent rubrics”, and “positionalities”, and then having to pretend in my review that I’d both mastered this tangled tongue and maintained sufficient will to live to pass constructive comment on it.

But once you have hacked your way through the impenetrable forest of the introduction (which counts “decentring the traditionally unmarked male” and “normatively naturalizing potencies” among its most egregious language crimes), you emerge into a glade of sunny clarity. For Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities is no ordinary gender book – reading it will give you a new perspective on the social problems of the developing world.

The idea that gender equality is important to development is not new – efforts to educate women and girls are among foreign aid’s few relatively uncontested success stories, and microfinance programs, the development fad du jour, also mostly target women. Men, however, have largely been overlooked by practitioners and policy-makers; reading Men and Development, you begin to see what catastrophic effects this has had.

The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”.

When the breadwinner role becomes impossible to fulfil – as it did for millions of men across Africa during the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s – men have other facets of masculinity on which to draw in order to recover their self-esteem. Some of these alternative masculinities are positive – think of the black South Africans who responded to economic emasculation by adopting the role of fighter against oppression and joining the liberation struggle.

But many traditional expressions of manliness are socially destructive. Physical violence is the most obvious of these. Economic insecurity, as one of the Men and Development authors Gary Barker notes in an earlier paper, can prompt men to turn to violence to reaffirm their power – many South African men have joined criminal gangs, for example, while domestic violence becomes more common as unemployment rises.

Continue reading

Africa to meet MDGs (updated)

Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Maxim Pinkovskiy today published a working paper today that drops the following bombshell (here’s a free version):

Our main conclusion is that Africa is reducing poverty, and doing it much faster than we thought. The growth from the period 1995-2006, far from benefiting only the elites, has been sufficiently widely spread that both total African inequality and African within-country inequality actually declined over this period. In particular, the speed at which Africa has reduced poverty since 1995 puts it on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty relative to 1990 by 2015 on time or, at worst, a couple of years late. If Congo-Zaire converges to Africa once it is stabilized, the MDG will be achieved by 2012, three years before the target date. These results are qualitatively robust to changes in our methodology, including using different data sources and assumptions for what happens to inequality when inequality data is not available.

Not much reaction yet – but I’m intrigued to see what other economists are going to make of their work…

Update: Xavier Sala-i-Martin has a wonderfully crazy Columbia University website – he likes FC Barcelona, Salvador Dali and Beavis and Butthead.

Update II: These Economist articles from 2004 (one, two) offer useful background. The crux of the matter seems to be that Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy use GDP to measure poverty (working out distribution of income from household surveys) – the World Bank’s figures are derived directly from the surveys themselves.