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Smoke and mirrors

Posted by Richard Saturday, July 09, 2005

It would perhaps be a little too cynical to suggest that one "silver lining" to emerge from the London bombing is that media coverage of the G8 summit has been somewhat truncated. Even then, the Google news service yields some 2,564 related stories from a "G8" search.

Predictably, the main players are spinning like mad, to put as positive a gloss on the affair as they can, reflected in the coverage in The Times, which headlines: "Blair backs G8's 'big progress' on poverty and Aids."

Clearly, though, "environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners" are not so happy, and have already begun to condemn the summit as a failure, claiming that Blair has failed to live up to expectations he had created. But none seem to be as outspoken as Peter Hardstaff, the head of policy at the World Development Movement. He declared that: "The final communiqué is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of campaigners who listened in good faith to the world leaders' claim that they were willing to seriously address poverty in Africa."

Perhaps the strongest condemnation, though, was unintended, with South Africa’s Independent online reporting that: "Low-key Bush gets what he wanted at G8 summit". That, of course – for most campaigners – is the kiss of death. In the demonology of the age, anything which satisfies Bush must automatically be wrong.

More interestingly, the London bombing, in political terms, seems to have backfired, in that it allowed Bush to push the "war against terrorism" up the agenda and to side-track attention from the twin issues of aid for Africa and climate change.

Nonetheless, the view is that Bush gave just enough leeway to these two "delicate" subjects to allow Blair to claim a victory. Thus, he formally recognised that: "Climate change is a serious and long-term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe" and doffed his cap to Kyoto, although still asserting that "uncertainties remain in our understanding of climate science".

On aid to Africa, Bush had announced before the summit a $1.2 billion plan to fight malaria, promising to double the $4.3 billion of US aid to $8.6 billion by 2010. Washington did not want precise figures to be written into the G8 declaration but finally agreed that the G8 and "other donors" would commit to increasing aid to Africa by $25 billion by 2010 double that of 2004, giving a figure for the headline writers of $50 billion.

Even then, campaigners has dismissed this "doubling of global aid to $50 billion" as a "statistical illusion" – which it probably is – leaving Blair in the uncomfortable but familiar position of defending a deal that relies more on smoke and mirrors than substance.

Other "touchy-feely" promises include debt relief for the poorest countries, a commitment to Aids treatment for all, immunisation against polio and other killer diseases and an extra 20,000 trained troops for a peace-keeping force for Africa. But, to illustrate quite how wispy the agreement really is, "African leaders" promised in turn to "promote democracy, the rule of law, human rights and an end to corruption." Yeah… and the pigs are lining up for take-off at Harare Airport.

One of the least substantial commitments, however, is a promise to end agricultural exports subsidies, the lie given to the promise by the inability (or refusal) of the G8 leaders to give a date for their cessation.

According to Reuters, they also renewed their political backing for a further phase of trade liberalisation under the so-called Doha Round of negotiations by the end of next year. Understandably, trade analysts in Geneva, home to the WTO, said they doubted the G8 declaration would have much impact on the negotiations and, sadly, they are probably right.

Adriano Campolina Soares of ActionAid accused Bush and the EU of playing "a cynical game of bluff." "The U.S. has no intention of giving up or lowering the massive subsidies it gives to cotton farmers, that are forcing 10 million farmers in West Africa out of business," she said.

Still, at least The Times has got some measure of the beast, with an authored article by Michael Holman, former Africa Editor of the Financial Times. Headed, "Welcome to the aid business," he notes that: "Business is booming for NGOs in Africa while skilled Africans leave to work abroad," asking, "Is the aid business contributing to Africa's problems rather than solving them?"

As Africa's crisis has deepened and its problems have multiplied, he writes:

…so the number of foreign NGOs has risen. There were a few hundred in the 1960s. There are thought to be well over 25,000 today, their staff swelling the continent's army of outsiders. And they don't come cheap. An estimated $4bn is spent annually on recruiting some 100,000 expatriates.

The result is that there are more foreigners in Africa than there were at independence, some five decades ago. They are helping to run everything from ministries to mines, working as behind-the-scenes policy makers or performing heroics on the front line in the battle against poverty. This in itself need not be cause for concern, were it not for another statistic: as foreigners arrive to take up short term contracts, skilled Africans are leaving, in their droves, to work abroad - some 70,000 a year.
There are grounds for challenging the role of NGOs in one of Africa's most encouraging developments in recent years, adds Holman: the growth of civil society.

Far from being in the vanguard of two policy shifts reluctantly introduced by African governments, many foreign NGOs have played only a modest part: the deregulation of state controlled TV and radio, and the privatisation of the telecommunication sector. More information became available, and mobile phone ownership soared.

But for the most part NGOs are still rooted in an ideological past, fighting battles on African soil which have been long lost at home, in which privatisation, profit and the private sector are treated with deep suspicion.

Holman believes this adds up to a prima facie case for an independent inquiry which would help provide the answer to a critical question: should the people who will be rattling their collection boxes in Gleneagles be sharing in the credit for persuading the world to respond to Africa's needs? Or should they be sharing the blame for the continent's development disaster?

On this blog, I do not think we would have any difficulty in framing our answer.