Africa at the G8 summit: déjà vu?

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
7 June 2007

So, here we are again. Two years on from the July 2005 gathering at Gleneagles, Scotland, the acceptable face of African leadership is preparing to assemble on the steps of the Group of Eight (G8) summit at Heiligendamm, Germany for a photo-opportunity amid more heartfelt pleas to increase aid to Africa.

The presence of "this" Africa at the summit owes much to the promotion and patronage of individual G8 leaders, most notably Tony Blair. Indeed, it seems hard to think now about the African component of the G8 summit at all without considering the input of the outgoing British prime minister; he has even made Africa a central part of his valedictory tour, whose aim (according to a normally reticent BBC) was to burnish the Blair legacy for posterity.

And this is the problem. The mere fact that media commentators seem routinely to put "Blair, Africa, aid, legacy" together in the same sentence underlines the inability to "see" Africa as it really is: a living, proliferating, diverse collection of some 700 million people in fifty-three different countries, making their lives, lurching forwards, sometimes falling backwards, occasionally sideways. "That" Africa is invisible; the one that has come to dominate public perception is a meek, grateful place that provides a soft, faintly glowing backdrop to an assessment of Blair's ten years in office. The African leaders on the Heiligendamm steps are unlikely to do anything to change the focus.

Also by Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie in openDemocracy:

"African agency vs the aid industry"
(6 July 2005)

"The G8 summit: good for Africans?"
(11 July 2005)

"Accountability, Africa and her diaspora"
(26 September 2005)

"Make poverty history? Make migration easy!" (10 January 2006)

"Migrants and development: a new era" (8 November 2006)Many commend Blair for putting Africa on the international agenda, and invoke some of the golden moments of his career as evidence: the "scar on the conscience" speech of 2004; the Commission for Africa, which reported in 2005; the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 itself, which promised so much to Africa and has apparently delivered so little. Yet, there has always been a "let's fix Africa" thrust to Blair's Africa policy - a sort of modern, correct version of the "white man's burden". Africa's own solutions, in this approach and mindset, were never good enough for Africa. The Commission for Africa, for example, sidelined the homegrown New Partnership for Africa (Nepad) and the newly established African Union in its eagerness to establish its agenda for Africa as the leading one.

Blair's sincerity and passion (a favourite word in the Blairite lexicon) for Africa deserve to be acknowledged. His constituency party chairman, speculating about what Blair might do after stepping down on 27 June 2007, even said: "He has a great love of Africa and trying to improve Africa. I wonder whether he would get involved in that." The calls for more aid and debt relief, and the military intervention in Sierra Leone that precipitated the end to that country's brutal civil war, will also be remembered.

But if there is a missing dimension, it is not just in Blair's incapacity to alleviate or resolve the seemingly intractable African crises in Darfur, Zimbabwe, or Somalia; nor even in the way that success in Sierra Leone may have contributed to hubris over Iraq. It is in the failure to register and relate to Africa and Africans as agents of their own future. Here, Tony Blair shares in a far broader 20th-century perception that Africans themselves are leaving behind in the 21st.

Aid: from critique to reform

Two years after Gleneagles, a year after St Petersburg, it is striking how little the discourse around Africa has changed. G8 leaders, NGO activists and African leaders all seem to agree that aid is pivotal to Africa's turnaround. Germany's chancellor and host of the G8, Angela Merkel, has joined the club - promising that this time the G8 will redeem its pledge to double aid to Africa by 2010.

This approach rests on a studied evasion about why so much aid to Africa in the past has failed to deliver transformation. It thus seems more concerned to salve consciences than to bring real change. It also ignores the lively debate that is raging behind the scenes and in public forums about whether aid is really effective as an instrument of development.

A thirty-year veteran of the World Bank, Phyllis R Pomerantz contributes one valuable view to this argument (see Aid Effectiveness in Africa: Developing Trust between Donors and Governments [Lexington Books, 2004]). Pomerantz attributes much of aid's ineffectiveness in Africa to donors' failure to pay attention to culture. Monologue and one-way impositions, donor paternalism, and insensitivity undermine the trust, mutual respect and understanding that should, in Pomerantz's view, underpin aid relationships.

Pomerantz would like to see donors pay more attention to African traditions and conditions. She is aiming for trusting relationships that underpin shared purpose, commitment, reliability, transparency, and familiarity.

Such a vision - which is echoed from a different direction by Michael Edwards in his openDemocracy article on the reinvention of "development" - seems very far from the cold calculations of summit talks where the paternalism of the discourse about aid is reinforced by hypocrisy over a second potential route to African development: trade. Here, the contradiction between the rhetoric of free and equitable trade and the reality of subsidies and preferential agreements is all too established. As the United Nations human-development report of 2005 says: "The world's richest countries spent just over one billion dollars for the year 2005 on aid for agriculture in poor countries, and just under one billion dollars each day of that year for various subsidies of agricultural overproduction at home."

Every day that rich countries continue to block African food exports or flood African markets with subsidised imports, they emaciate African producers and further reduce the continent's capacity to trade its way to wealth and prosperity.

This G8 summit holds out the prospect of more hand-wringing about rich-country subsidies, but probably very little action. It is far easier to make aid promises (whether fulfilled or not) and then claw them back with an unjust trade regime; it's called give and take.

No wonder, then, that many of the beneficiaries of aid to Africa live in western countries and tend also to be the loudest advocates for more of the same. The problem here is that welcome increases in the aid budget of (for example) the British government in recent years are often accompanied by cuts in staff (in this case, the department for international development [DfID]) - and this means that greater responsibility for disbursement falls on the large international NGOs whose record in Africa over the last decades is hardly a success. Today, there is a shift towards private-sector aid initiatives, but it is doubtful if the companies now eagerly getting in on the act will do any better in "fixing" Africa.

Also in openDemocracy on the G8 and the politics of African aid:

David Styan, "Tony Blair and Africa: old images, new realities"
(26 June 2005)

Michael Holman, "Welcome to the aid business!"
(27 June 2005)

Leni Wild, "China, Africa and the G8: the missing link"
(11 July 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "The aid business: phantoms and realities" (18 July 2006)

Michael Holman: "Africa: celebrity and salvation"
(23 October 2006)

Onyekachi Wambu, "Africa's Chinese challenge"
(30 January 2007)

Stephen Browne, "G8 aid: beyond the target trap" (6 June 2007)

the nineteen articles in our "G8 summit 2005" debateA glimmer of light

Behind the scenes, many African governments remain sceptical about the aid game, yet still they play it. It is just possible that the newcomer on the scene, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, will be able to make a practical difference here. Her government is busy trying to persuade the United States government to provide long-term residency to the several thousand Liberians in the US whose temporary-protection status (TPS) expires on 1 October 2007. Many of these Liberians would like to stay in the US from where they can send home money to support their relatives and invest in businesses, thereby creating much-needed jobs. In 2006, Liberians abroad remitted some $100 million through formal channels alone. Meanwhile, the government's budget for the same period was $130m.

A G8 summit that was genuinely committed to helping Africa help herself would acknowledge and build on the important role that migrants and migration play in the development of their countries of origin by putting this issue centre-stage.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of light here too, with a new generation of leaders assuming power in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy may still be a relatively unknown quantity in African terms, but the imminent arrival of Gordon Brown to the prime-ministership in Britain is a moment to recall a major study issued by his Treasury just two years into the tenure of the New Labour regime, in 1999. "Tackling Poverty and Extending Opportunity" contained "shocking conclusions on the scale of poverty and inequality, and the passage of inequality from generation to generation", and concluded that "work and access to work is the key driver in Britain today and lack of work is the primary cause of poverty." Brown's doctrinal roots were evident in the claim that "work is the best route out of poverty."

Africans themselves - from the grassroots to the more enlightened governments - have similarly argued that their principal route out of poverty lies in the creation of more jobs, something the aid industry is largely silent about. Gordon Brown has been conducting his own, lower-level but evidently affecting, love-affair with Africa. We can only hope that, as Tony Blair strides off-stage to leave him the limelight, he will lay aside the temptations of celebrity to apply some of the medicine that has been good enough for Britain in the last decade. Then, by the time of the summit in Toyako, Japan on 7-9 July 2008, the amassed journalists might be forgiven for resorting in their articles to a new mantra: "Brown, Africa, jobs, empowerment!"

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData