Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A preposterous idea

It was Der Spiegel magazine last Sunday which broke the news that the German government was preparing to propose a tax of €300 per ton of aviation fuel to the EU finance ministers council to be held tomorrow.

The proposal was that this tax should be collected from all EU-based airlines, the proceeds of which would be used to raise funds for development in Africa.

Although we noted this story, we took the view at the time that it was so preposterous that it would soon die. In fact, we had to do a double-take to ensure that 1 April had not crept up on us, making it the classic April fool joke.

Note least, we thought, since air fuel taxation is subject to international agreement, not even EU member states could be so stupid as to disadvantage their own airlines in a highly competitive market, when there was no hope whatsoever of other countries (and especially the USA) joining in.

However, by yesterday, the story had developed, with news leaking out that the EU commission was in support of the idea, as long as it was in addition to a country's regular aid budget, not a substitute, and that the money was ring-fenced for development.

The airlines, of course, were furious and, by this evening, transport commissioner, Jaques "Wheel" Barrot was pulling back, telling a news briefing that: "I would be reluctant to introduce a tax on jet fuel today for European air companies,"

But, even if the idea was practicable, from the point of view of actually collecting the tax, the idea of pumping any more aid into Africa is itself preposterous, as my colleague – with the help of Mr Rod Liddle - has just pointed out.

But, if any further confirmation was needed, all you have to do is read today’s Telegraph, which records that King Mswati III of Swaziland, one of the world's poorest countries, has just spent £450,000 on 10 new BMWs for his 11 wives and three teenage fiancees. This extravagance, the latest in a long line, is equivalent to almost half the £1 million of British aid that Swaziland received last year and is equal to 1.5 per cent of Swaziland's health budget of £30 million.

Seventy per cent of Swaziland's one million people live in absolute poverty. Around 39 per cent of all adult Swazis are infected with HIV or Aids – the highest proportion in the world. And the government is so strapped for cash that government ministries cannot buy any new furniture this year.

Swaziland is kept afloat by more than £14 million of international aid. Yet last year, the king spent almost £9 million on palaces, parties and cars. His 36th birthday party, which was celebrated in the national stadium with 10,000 guests, cost £330,000.

And should Gordon Brown double international aid for Africa and cancel the continent's debts, as he has proposed, Swaziland – i.e., King Mswati - would gain about £38 million. Perhaps then he could afford the £25 million that in 2002 he tried to spend on a private jet before being forced to back down because of outrage among his people and protests from aid donors.

On the other hand, if you are inclined to think that Mswati is an atypical exception, read another story in the same edition of the Telegraph, which reports that president Mwai Kibaki of Kenya is said to have taken to his bed in despair, finding solace, according to a cabinet colleague, "only in the works of P G Wodehouse".

Facing the biggest political crisis of his two-year premiership, Kibaki has just lost his only honest adviser, the anti-corruption chief John Githongo, who resigned last week in protest at the president's failure to tackle rampant corruption inside his cabinet.

With the country spiralling downwards, Kenya is rapidly becoming a hub for international crime. The Russian mafia has arrived, bringing with it a coterie of stern-faced eastern European prostitutes. Drug barons have moved in too, giving Mr Kibaki yet more cause for retiring to his bed – while the people suffer.

And the EU wants to give more money to these people? Preposterous!

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