Tony Blair and Africa - old images, new realities

David Styan
25 May 2005

The British prime minister, Tony Blair, has embarked this week on the first stage of a diplomatic tour to win support from his G8 colleagues for his plans to increase development aid to Africa. As his country prepares to host the Gleneagles summit from 6-8 July , Blair’s visits to Rome on 27 May and Washington and Moscow in early June are crucial if he is to turn the rhetoric of 2005 as the “year of Africa ” into deeds.

Blair is hoping that such G8 luminaries as Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac and – above all – George W Bush will join his effort to double the annual aid budget to Africa to around £60 billion, or $110 billion. It is an impressive spectacle, but Blair’s frenetic jet-setting also reminds me of a very different African experience: an encounter several months ago with an elderly stranger in a damp, cramped café in an obscure corner of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who introduced himself as Yohannes.

Yohannes and me

Yohannes and I discussed Ethiopian athletes’ stupendous Olympic victories, the season’s ample rains (a blessing for the 50 million rural Ethiopians), a scandal consuming the Ethiopian football federation – and a puzzling newspaper report that Tony Blair had been invited to drink coffee in the city’s Revolution Square by a foreigner called “Oxfam”.

As the downpour eased, Yohannes insisted on paying for my macchiato , adding that dollars and euro sent by a daughter in the United States and nephews in Holland both supplement his miniscule state pension and cover the school and medical costs of several younger dependents in the city.

In the week when Addis Ababa’s plush United Nations conference centre and sumptuous Sheraton Hotel played host to Tony Blair and his entourage of “development experts”, Yohannes’s transnational personal finances indeed mirror those of hundreds of thousands of families across the sprawling, eucalyptus-covered hills of Ethiopia’s capital.

Like Yohannes’s relatives, almost a million of Ethiopia’s 70 million population now live abroad; most in the United States, but with sizeable minorities in Europe and the Arab gulf states. The growing volume of their remittances and investments are now central characteristics of the country’s economy and society.

This pattern, whereby substantial numbers of migrants have moved northwards, followed by subsequent flows of remittances and investments back home, has very rapidly established itself throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In barely two decades, the education, work and family prospects of millions of Africans and their dependents have become linked to migration, which has in turn become the key to their current economic survival and future aspirations.

Unplanned and barely noticed by outsiders, these changes reflect a profound shift in Africans’ role in the global economy. With the exception of those oil-rich states, Africa’s importance in global financial terms, as a source of primary commodities – such as Ethiopia’s coffee or Ghana’s cocoa – is now being eclipsed by its role as a supplier of migrant labour.

Standard analysis bemoans Africa’s “marginalisation”, its plummeting share of expanded world trade and foreign direct investment. Western media and politicians too often continue to present a monolithic view of Africans as a homogeneous mass, mired in poverty, the passive recipients of western largesse and “aid”.

Yet it is precisely trends in trade and investment that have obliged entrepreneurial and educated Africans to become the most “globalised” of 21st-century citizens, giving the lie to the homogenous, simplifying view.

A central dimension of Africa’s contemporary reality is that from Somalia to Senegal, Africans are now engaged in phenomenally complex transnational strategies of investment and survival, linked to their relatives working in other continents. Between Bangkok and Dubai, via the suburbs of London and Los Angeles, remittances generated from Africans’ labour in the rich world’s service-sector economies fund trade and investments at home. Above all they provide a precarious but effective form of “globalised” social security to millions of families throughout the continent.

The policy implications of this shift have yet to figure on the agendas of politicians and pundits. This was clearly apparent during the Addis Ababa visit of Tony Blair’s “Commission for Africa ”, whose coterie of NGOs and experts spent two days in Addis engaged in the modest task of “examining Africa’s past, present and future”.

The commission, launched in February 2004 and delivering its report in March 2005 , included Blair’s finance minister Gordon Brown, his international development minister Hilary Benn, and thirteen others selected by his office.

There is clearly still a critical role for external financial support of the kind Tony Blair’s commissioners discussed in Addis. But if the new ideas and fresh frameworks Blair promises are to be effective, they must acknowledge the changes in Africans’ relations with the west wrought by recent migration. The west’s future relationship with the African continent will be forged primarily not by diplomats or charities, but by western citizens of African origin in combination with Africans who have remained at or returned home.

The Africa commission’s project

Tony Blair’s “New Labour” is especially concerned to be seen to be combating world poverty in general, and Africa’s maladies in particular, during its much-vaunted “year of Africa”, when it holds the chair of the European Union as well as the G8. The Commission for Africa’s purpose, when viewed from London, is to reassert British leadership in multilateral policy towards Africa – reflected a week before the Addis meeting by Gordon Brown’s unilateral announcement of debt reduction and his pledge that Britain will sharply increase its overseas aid spending to meet the UN target of 0.7% of GDP by 2013.

The commission’s final report addressesd a familiar panoply of problems: Africa’s unsustainable debt, the HIV/Aids pandemic, and collapsing commodity prices. The report expresses universalist claims to speak for and to an “international community”, and to be working in partnership with Africans, but these do not conceal the emphatically Blairite, British nature of the initiative.

Indeed it epitomises Tony Blair’s idiosyncratic, personalised approach to diplomacy. The commissioners and their secretariat were apparently selected according to their “modernising” credentials rather than their expertise, and outsiders, notably iconoclastic Irish musician Bob Geldof, were crucial in shaping the commission and its agenda.

Members of the commission visited other African capitals, but the Addis event – prominently attended by Ethiopian premier, Meles Zenawi – was a key part of its public profile. The British government regards it as essential to forge a link between the Ethiopian dimension of the commission, the influential domestic NGO lobby, and the British electorate as a whole. The fact also that 2005 marks the twentieth anniversary of the “Live Aid/Band Aid” concerts – spearheaded by Bob Geldof to raise funds to provide food aid to Ethiopia – was highlighted by Tony Blair at the commission’s launch.

Blair’s investment in the Addis Ababa meeting – apart from being a welcome distraction from the Iraqi example of externally inspired democracy promotion and development – was designed to place the commission at the centre of the continent’s politics. Addis hosts the African Union, now reinvigorated by reforms and new initiatives that include the launch of a pan-African parliament and its military monitoring role in Sudan’s Darfur province; the city is also home to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, whose urbane head K.Y. Amoako also sat on Blair’s commission.

In his speech to the 2001 Labour party conference, Tony Blair condemned Africa’s plight as a “scar on the conscience of the world”. This rhetorical commitment, much in evidence during his four-nation trip to west Africa in February 2002, also made Blair the most eager external backer of the New Economic Partnership for African Development (Nepad), launched at the G8 Genoa summit in July 2001. Nepad seeks financial assistance from OECD states and donors in exchange for a commitment to economic liberalisation and political reform by African leaders, yet none of the key African figures instrumental in its evolution were members of the Commission for Africa.

This, along with the diffuse, overblown nature of the commission’s ambitions, and the moralising tones in which its British members tend to express them, have always made it overwhelmingly likely that performance will fail to match promise.

Tony Blair’s Africa, and the real challenge

The author of Blair’s Wars (and now New Statesman editor) John Kampfner, characterises Blair’s approach to Africa – in light of his military adventure in Sierra Leone – as “a jumbled mix of ambitious policy, passionate genuflexions and picture opportunities”.

Ambition, passion and photo-ops all featured prominently in the Ethiopia trip. The coffee drinking photo-op in Revolution Square that bemused Yohannes and me was scheduled by local Oxfam activists and coffee farmers to highlight plummeting world coffee prices. The vast parade-ground still has the viewing stand used by Mengistu’s Marxist-military regime deposed by Meles Zenawi’s fighters in 1991. Today, like much of Addis Ababa, its most prominent features are vast coloured posters urging awareness of the threat of HIV/Aids; an estimated 3 million Ethiopians are infected with the virus.

Under the surface, however, the proliferation of elite-based, external schemes to remedy Africa’s ills remains the substance of the commission’s work. This troubles many educated Africans, who highlight two key flaws in Blair’s initiative.

First, Africans simply do not need yet more conferences and reports by outsiders investigating their problems. There is no shortage of worthy reports into war, famine, HIV/Aids, and Africa’s corrupt leaders. The Commission for Africa was only the first of eight such international gatherings focussing on the plight of Africa to be held in the Ethiopian capital in October 2004 alone. The following week, to take just one example, would see 1,000 delegates arriving for the “Africa Development Forum”, spewing forth hundreds more papers and consultancies on African problems. Good news for the city’s hotels and hookers, but such meetings are at best an irrelevance to the likes of my café companion Yohannes.

Second, and more fundamentally, Africans’ own individual future choices must not be equated with those of the international development industry, NGOs and multilateral institutions which constitute the “international community’s” presence on the continent.

The problem is that these bodies systematically overlook the role of Africans’ individual agency – most notably when they choose to migrate, enhancing diasporas and remittance flows. As such, these institutions are largely an irrelevance to the choices facing Africans, both in Africa and beyond. Of far greater importance are the domestic visa and work-permit regimes of OECD countries, and the degree to which (if at all) western governments recognise and encourage migration and remittances as a vital source of external “development” of African countries.

This point is well illustrated by the experiences of London-based Africans. To the surprise of those unfamiliar with the rapidly changing demography of some of London’s poorest boroughs, Britain’s 2001 census showed that in the 1990s Black Africans had become the fastest growing minority ethnic group in the country, with 80% of the estimated 500,000 population concentrated in London and its environs.

The predominance of west African security guards and traffic wardens is simply the most visible tip of a rapidly growing African labour force which underpins south-east England’s booming service sector. London’s health, education and cleaning services are all particularly dependent upon the labour of recent African migrants. It is these workers, along with British citizens of south Asian origin who – via remittances sent to their countries of origin – are by far the largest “aid donors” in Britain.

This fact simply does not fit with the image of “development”, charity and NGO action upon which orthodox Britain’s perceptions and policies towards Africa are based. Yet if an African in London cleans your office, nurses your mother or clamps your car, and also manages to send half her meagre wage home each month – thus directly supporting a dozen relatives – where does this leave white folks’ notion that they can “help Africans” by charitable contributions, buying records or eating the right brand of chocolate?

This tension now lies at the heart of contemporary “development policy”. Migrants are the primary vehicle of “development” via global flows of remittances, investment and trade to their countries of origin, but they are almost totally ignored by western aid ministries and NGOs concerned with poverty in Africa. This is despite the fact that flows of remittances dwarf those of official development assistance; indeed, for many African countries remittances have become a more important source of foreign exchange than either traditional commodity exports or inward direct investment.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, who heads Afford, a group of London-based Africans with extensive experience of working with British diaspora groups remitting and investing in Africa, is clear about the inherent flaws in the development industry:

“those who should actually own the process of shaping their own destiny are marginalised, excluded, overlooked and patronised. Solutions arrive, but they mean nothing to those who at that point are frustrated and alienated”.

Such contradictions cannot continue indefinitely; pressures for change are slowly emerging. In June 2004 the British parliament’s cross-party international development committee issued a landmark report highlighting the extent and complexity of links between Britain’s migrant populations and development. It gathered contributions from a wide range of British-based African and Asian groups, academics and policy-makers. The report comprehensively highlights the acute difficulties in reconciling the country’s labour shortages and restrictive immigration policies with its government’s commitment to poverty reduction in Africa and Asia.

Since he entered the department of international development (DfID) in June 2001, Hilary Benn has explicitly acknowledged the key role of remittances and diasporas. But DfID as an institution, like the Commission for Africa itself, has barely begun to engage with British-based Africans (and then often by commissioning white academics to “consult” them).

The Commission for Africa’s work will be of use only if any shifts in European Union and G8 policy in 2005 are indeed decisive. As the noted pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Rahman (Justice Africa) states: “Africa does not need new promises, but the fulfilment of old ones”.

In conversation with an African friend of mine in London, Bob Geldof claimed that his own personal aim from participating in the commission was to “unlearn what he’d spent the past twenty years learning about Africa”. If other non-African members also engage in “unlearning”, the commission may yet serve the rather modest yet practical purpose of rethinking Britain’s relationship to Africans – those in the continent, those in the boroughs of London, and those in transit between.

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