Gordon Brown and Africa

When the Labor Party came to power in Britain in 1997, the face of the new government was Prime Minister Tony Blair. But the man signing the pay checks was Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Neither had any direct interest or connection with Africa before they came to power and did little about Africa in their first five years in office. The development agenda was driven by Clare Short, overseas aid minister. It was Gordon Brown’s political support for the leftist Short that gave her a seat in cabinet and enabled her to radicalise Britain’s overseas aid policy. Renamed the Department for International Development (Dfid), the ministry was separated from the Foreign Office and given an exclusive new mandate: the relief of poverty. Aid was no longer an arm of British foreign policy or tied to British goods. If Dfid needed to buy tractors for development it bought the best, British or not.

This humanist internationalism, linked to a new “ethical foreign policy” preached by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was driven in part by Gordon Brown’s idealism. But the other strand in Brown’s character; financial prudence, was less in evidence when it came to overseas aid. The foreign assistance budget, cut under the Conservatives, rose 8% in Labor’s first year with promises of more. In Labor’s second term in office 2001 – 2005 Africa was put at the top of the international agenda and aid increased accordingly. Running at $3.371 billion in 1997, British aid worldwide rose to $14.03 billion in 2007 and is expected to rise to $16.07 billion by 2010.

Well over half of this spending is targeted on Africa, the continent that has fallen behind the rest of the world in economic and developmental terms. To raise political support for the campaign for Africa, Blair and Brown promoted the aid agencies’ view of the continent; poor, war-torn, hopeless, unable to feed itself or develop. In 2004, Tony Blair launched the Commission for Africa to provide a platform for the agenda at the Gleneagles G8 Summit the following year, devoted primarily to Africa.

Gordon Brown was not only a member of the Commission panel but ensured that his man at the Treasury, Nicholas Stern, wrote the report. The idea and the presentation may have been Tony Blair’s but the content and the recommendations were firmly under the control of Mr. Brown. It recommended what he and others had been calling for: double aid to Africa in order to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Gordon Brown is serious about helping Africa. His personal campaign for Africa in 2005 was to deliver debt relief for the most heavily indebted poor countries - many of them African - in collaboration with the World Bank, the IMF, and other G8 leaders. In that he succeeded, but his attempt to raise funds through the creation of an International Finance Facility, a mechanism to provide aid and debt relief by floating government bonds for aid on the international money markets, was rejected by the United States. It has been folded into the French scheme to raise finance through a tax on airline travel to be spent on health in Africa.

Where does this concern for Africa come from? Mr. Brown is the son of a Presbyterian Church of Scotland minister and grew up in a poor part of Glasgow and later in the small Scottish town of Kirkcaldy. From his father he inherited his ideals; strictly moral, puritanical and serious, careful with money and caring for others. As a youth he had to sneak out of home to buy the Sunday papers and hide them because his father disapproved of shopping on the Sabbath. Some might call this upbringing typically Scottish. In the mid-nineteenth century, David Livingstone, another Scottish Presbyterian minister and explorer of Africa, had called for missionaries to bring Christianity to “the Dark Continent.” The Church of Scotland had responded enthusiastically, sending thousands of young idealistic Christians to Africa for more than a century to bring their religion and education to Africans. Their feed-back through the Church increased Scotland’s sense of international mission, particularly for Africa. It affected subsequent generations including the young Gordon Brown. Aged 11, he organized a sale to raise money for refugees.

A precocious child, he was pushed through school to Edinburgh University at the age of 16, but was badly injured in a rugby game and suffered a loss of sight. An operation and two months lying in a darkened room saved one eye but he is blind in the other. That experience, friends say, made him a man in a hurry, driven by almost missionary zeal. He repeats with passion his belief that every child in the world has a right to health care and education. While still a student at university, he was voted Rector - a position of real power. He took on the authorities over the university’s investments in apartheid South Africa – and won.

So there is no doubt that the aid commitment to Africa made by Tony Blair will be delivered during Brown’s premiership. Brown has already given the Department for International Development more money and two extra ministers – one of them his former Africa adviser, Shriti Vadera, whose family comes from Uganda. He has also made Mark Malloch-Brown, formerly head of the United Nations Development Program and chief of staff to UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, Minister for Africa at the Foreign Office.

The MDG targets are clear but the questions are, firstly, whether this mode of engagement with Africa will bring sustainable change to the continent. Secondly, does Brown have the political skills to build international consensus to achieve those targets?

The missionary background of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries turned into the aid agency and volunteering movement after the Second World War. Many of those who founded and ran organizations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, and Save the Children Fund came from church backgrounds. In the 1960s and 1970s, their workers went off to Africa as volunteer teachers, nurses and technicians in the same spirit that their grandfathers had gone to “evangelize the natives”. They may have been humanitarian rather than explicitly religious, but the basic concept was that Africans needed their help to make life better and transform the continent.

To raise money for their campaigns, they promoted the vision of Africa as a poor backward continent beset by wars and famines and in need of saving. Since media coverage of other aspects of Africa was scarce, this became the common perception of the continent. It was picked up by rock stars such as Bob Geldoff and Paul Hewson – Bono. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also embraced this view of Africa. Blair described Africa as a “scar on the conscience of the world”. The politicians also embraced the rock stars, sending their ratings sky high. But while people were inspired to care about poverty and give money, few dug deeper into the causes of Africa’s present distress. The Make Poverty History campaign, funded indirectly by the government, promoted the idea that if everyone gave money to Africa, its problems would be solved. Nor did many ask what Africans felt about this perception of their continent. They did not listen to Africa’s burgeoning middle class which resents deeply the image of Africa as a starving child.

Meanwhile, journalists in Africa reported Africans’ complete ignorance of these efforts to save them. Britain’s capacity for understanding and engaging with Africa more deeply was being lost. While Chancellor Brown poured money into Dfid, his Treasury department cut back the budget of the Foreign Office, the department that deals with foreign governments, analyses national political trends, and builds an institutional memory of countries and how they work. The moral mission to Africa began to trip on political realities. One of the more embarrassing presences on the Africa Commission was Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who was at war with neighboring Eritrea, spending on weapons in a few months what Britain was giving in aid to the whole of Africa in a year. Later that year, Britain was forced to suspend aid to the Ethiopian government when it nullified election results and locked up some 15,000 opposition supporters.

An even bigger political embarrassment is about to break. Gordon Brown has announced that he will not attend the Europe Africa Summit in Lisbon in December if Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is allowed to attend. At present, a European travel ban prevents Mr. Mugabe from traveling to Europe, but an exception will likely be made for the Lisbon meeting. Mr. Brown has not managed persuade other European leaders that the Zimbabwe leader should be kept away. It seems the Summit will go ahead and that Mr. Mugabe will be invited. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, the other European heavyweights, will attend. They do not support Mr. Brown’s stand. Nor will any of the African rulers. On the contrary most, of them support Mugabe’s presence at the meeting and resent Britain’s attempt to dictate which African leaders can or cannot come to the Summit. We will have the humiliating spectacle of the country that prides itself on doing most to help Africa absenting itself from a major summit with Africa’s leaders.

This coming confrontation also calls into question the basis of the 2005 Gleneagles deal between Africa and the G8. The deal was that African governments would resolve Africa’s conflicts and rule their countries better. In return, western countries would provide finance for development. The deal is not working. Africa’s worst trouble spots, Zimbabwe and Sudan, were not even on the agenda at the recent African Union Summit. And while the numbers of elections in Africa have increased, several African rulers continue to use the state treasury as their personal cash box, spending huge amounts on lavish lifestyles. There is an almost complete lack of political dialogue with African governments.

And now it seems that the G8 leaders are not delivering their side of the bargain either. International aid to Africa increased by only 2% last year – far below the figure needed to deliver the doubling of aid by 2010. The threat of mutual disillusionment grows, fed by western media coverage of Africa. TV footage of continuing wars and hunger in Africa will reinforce popular perceptions that Africa is beyond help. Climate change makes it more likely that such images of disaster will continue to flood out of Africa. Opinion polls show that western publics are willing to help victims of natural disasters but less willing to support the long haul to development. Popular support in western countries for the “Big Push” for Africa could fall away. It remains robust in Britain, but is weaker in America and hardly exists in Russia and Japan. And if the promises of Gleneagles are not delivered, Africans too may well becomes disillusioned. Many are already wary of Britain’s motives. The invasion of Iraq confirmed many Africans’ suspicions that Britain still harbors imperial ambitions in the world.

That impression seemed to be confirmed when Mr. Brown said in Mozambique last year that Britain had nothing to apologize for in its colonial record in Africa. What he probably meant was that he was proud of the British missionaries and teachers and doctors who had given their lives to building schools and clinics and churches in Africa. But many Africans saw it as a shocking endorsement of British imperialism.

Until recently Britain’s rulers did not much care what Africans thought because they saw them as dependent on British aid and support. Now Africa has an alternative partner – China. China’s hunger for Africa’s resources has driven up their prices, providing far more income for many African countries than all the aid promised by western countries. The Chinese are also willing to provide stadiums, roads, and presidential palaces – infrastructure which many African rulers much prefer to money spent on their populations’ health or education. But most of all, the Chinese are free from colonial or Cold War ties. They do not lecture African rulers about governance and corruption. China’s government-to-government, non-interference policy is a Godsend for African leaders. China may tolerate bad governance in Africa, but at least it leaves Africa’s presidents, good or bad, to get on with it.

The most important lessons to emerge from the Blair and Brown Africa project so far have been that only Africans can develop Africa and that Africa is extraordinarily diverse. Its local dynamics – economic, social and political – are crucial and need to be understood. Africa can be helped but not saved by outsiders. The prime role of outsiders like Britain is to persuade leaders of other western countries that Africa matters and that it needs a fair deal on trade. Of the three legs of Britain’s Africa policy; aid, trade and debt relief, trade has made the least progress; and we have heard little so far about how the new Prime Minister intends to break down western trade barriers to ensure that trade policy is fair to Africa. Britain has not succeeded in persuading rich countries to remove agricultural subsidies that make it difficult for developing countries to earn a living in the world. The European Union and the United States are playing “after you” in trade negotiations, ensuring that neither of them has to change the status quo. Britain has concentrated on aid and the MDGs, particularly education, but the realization is growing that aid without sustainable economic growth will achieve little. Trade is the key, and if Mr. Brown makes progress on getting agreements to cut agricultural subsidies and clear away other barriers to trade with Africa, he will achieve far more for the continent than all the aid and debt relief that is being offered. ____________________________________________________________________
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society in London. He served as Africa Editor of The Independent from 1986 to 1995 and Africa Editor of the Economist from 1995 to 2001.

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Richard Dowden