The speech was billed as ground-breaking. The Conservative Party was going to come up with an exciting new idea on how to solve poverty in Africa and bring those countries into the modern world. Even more importantly it was going to underline (underline, I tell you) David Cameron’s “commitment to a changed Conservative agenda”. Wow, I thought, finding it a little hard to remember what the previous Conservative agenda was with regards to Africa.
Anyway, off I went to the Globalization Institute’s summer reception, where Andrew Mitchell was to deliver all these exciting new and original ideas. (Andrew Mitchell is the Shadow Spokesman on International Development, by the way, in case you have missed this enormously important fact.) And just in case you want to know more about the accuracy of what is reported by Central Office, let me tell you that they are wrong in one respect: the speech may have been delivered at the Foreign Press Association but it was not to the FPA but to the Globalization Institute.
Mr Mitchell spent the requisite 5 minutes previewing all the exciting new ideas the Conservative Party was going to produce in the next few months, then went on to the subject of his choice: African poverty and what we are to do about it.
He began by telling us astonishing pieces of information that most of us knew anyway:
“Over the last 50 years, the world has been getting freer, fairer, more open, and richer.
Global inequality has declined.
India and China have lifted millions of people out of poverty.
Once desperately poor countries in South East Asia are now economic world leaders.
But Africa has been left behind.
It remains a continent mired in poverty.
Africa's share of world trade has declined from 6% 25 years ago to less than 2% now.
Take out South Africa, and it's just 0.6%.
The EU, the US and Japan cling stubbornly to their massive and economically irrational protection.This hurts their economies, and those of the rest of the world.
But even in the face of this injustice, there is a lot that the people of Africa can do to help themselves.”
And then, out came the great idea: ta-da!!!!! A Pan-African Trading Area.
As a friend said to me afterwards, if this is what African countries should be doing, why aren’t they, already. The answer is, of course, that tariffs give the various dictators of the African continent the second largest single tranche of their income, the first being aid money.
Not that Mr Mitchell does not have a point and it is good to hear at least one Conservative striking out into new direction and point out that actually the salvation of Africa has to be achieved by Africans. We can help but cannot do it for them. (This is something many eurosceptics and, even, europhiles have to learn. Abolishing the CAP is a good idea; free trade is a good idea; but that is only a help not a solution.)
Numerous African analysts, such as Franklin Cudjoe of Imanighana, have written about the stupidity and iniquity of the African tariff system repeatedly. So, it all sounds like a wonderful idea. There is just one snag. Just exactly how are we going to achieve it?
Let us suppose, there is a Conservative government after the next General Election and Mr Mitchell is the Secretary of State for International Relations. Let us suppose, that the Pan-African Trading Area is still part of the Conservative policy. Exactly how is it going to be put together? What if the governments of Africa do not want to create such an Area and cannot see all those benefits? After all, the benefits are to the people and African governments are not known for being interested in the welfare of their people. Will Mr Mitchell decide to invade them all to create an imperial trading area? I think not. But what else can he do?
It’s not as if he could even propose free-trade agreements between Britain and various African countries as we have long ago given away our right to negotiate international trade deals to the European Union. Nor can he suggest cutting back aid to the absolute barest minimum or even less, as most of it is now handled by the EU. And, in any case, his leader, the Boy-King is committed to that idiotic UN idea of contributing 0.7 per cent of GDP in aid.
Another problem raises its rather ugly head. As Hernan de Soto demonstrated a few years ago and historians of Russia many years before him, before you have democracy and economic development, you must have clearly defined and legally enforceable property rights. Which African country has them?
How will that trade develop and who is going to invest in countries where the government of some other strong-armed bandit can simply take away one's hard-earned money?
Clearly, these problems are very difficult to deal with and I do not blame Mr Mitchell for not doing so. But I do wish he stopped treating us all as if we were all backward three-year old children. There was no need to produce a trite, superficial, badly argued speech and pretend that it was an exciting new policy statement. It did not go down well with the audience.