Make Poverty History? Make Migration Easy!

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
10 January 2006

We have made 2005 history – "Africa's year", in the eyes of its political and celebrity champions in the west, as if every year were not Africa's to the 900 million people living in the continent and their millions of compatriots and family members overseas.

Between Cape Town and Cairo, it was a year mostly of lows, though there were a few highs. Perhaps the most notable of the latter was Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf smashing the ultimate glass ceiling by getting herself elected president of post-war Liberia.

Other notable highs have included Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, telling Tony Blair what he can do with his £26 million in aid, now that Britain is unhappy with the path democracy is taking under that once shining example of new African leadership. The office of Olusegun Obasanjo has said something similar to George W Bush's administration in light of the latter’s concerns about proposed constitutional amendments that would allow Nigeria’s president to run for a third term.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie works for the London-based non-profit organisation, the African Foundation for Development (Afford)

Also by Chukwu Emeka-Chikezie in openDemocracy:

“African agency vs the aid industry”
(July 2005)

“The G8 summit: good for Africans?”
(July 2005)

“Accountability, Africa and her diaspora”
(September 2005)

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In this, Obasanjo is way behind Yoweri Museveni, who has already amended Uganda's constitution to permit him to extend his period in office, and whose placement in the military and civilian courts have arrested and charged the leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye. But these two trail that other golden boy of African leadership, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, where post-election chaos has seen more than seventy protesters killed by armed police and 131 politicians and civil-society activists (including two Make Poverty History campaigners) charged with genocide and treason.

Ah yes, the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign – surely this year's all-time low point. Well, let’s give credit where credit's due, or indeed debt relief where it’s due. MPH was a campaign to raise aid and reduce debt and in this it succeeded. What you make of its activities will depend first on how central you think aid is to tackling poverty in Africa and second on whether the ends apparently achieved justified the means of the campaign.

Expectations that more aid for Africa will do all the things the campaigners promise and what previous aid has failed to achieve represents the triumph of hope over experience. Lessons from examples where aid has worked – for instance United States aid to Taiwan, which paved the way for that country's growth – have not been applied to Africa’s own unique circumstances.

The concentration by campaigners on aid for Africa – rather than on other policy instruments, and on developing more dynamic and empowering relationships with the people of the continent – involves an inversion of the Pareto principle 80/20 rule, which suggests that a few account for most (or that a task is completed in the key 20% of the time and resources devoted to it). With aid campaigners, the most focus on an approach that will affect the few. Much of their work is wasted as a result.

This may seem a rational approach from the viewpoint of the northern-dominated aid industry. After all, the big winners in 2005 are the big NGOs. In these ageing societies, they've succeeded in establishing a covenant with a new generation of youthful supporters whom they hope will fund their work for the next few years. Far from striking a structural blow against poverty, the MPH campaign has shifted the balance of power northwards in favour of campaigners here speaking for Africa. Can you think of even one African voice or face that has communicated the aspirations, passions, concerns, and expectations of her or his fellow Africans over the last year?

So what? Maybe the ends justify the means? Such an argument could only stack up if we see this whole process as fundamentally apolitical, just a technical matter of handing over the cash. But development is about the choices that societies make about their own future: it is political at its very heart. That’s why the approach of the new Conservative Party leader in Britain, David Cameron, will be – as it should be – different to Tony Blair's or Gordon Brown's.

Thus, making Africans invisible objects and recipients of the campaign – to be wheeled onstage to give a brief smile and a wave when the time is right – defeats the object of helping people liberate themselves from misery. When people see themselves represented only as helpless objects, they lose the power to determine their own future, the will to take responsibility for their own destiny.

If we wind the clock back twenty years to the anti-apartheid campaign era, it would have been unthinkable for campaigners to have treated non-white South Africans at the heart of their own liberation struggle with such contempt. Something's not right somewhere.

The story campaigners missed

A retrospect of 2005 makes clear that the aid-for-good-governance pact and strategy lies in tatters. As the former good guys turn to bad guys and thumb their noses at their erstwhile aid-giving allies in favour of staying in power, it will be the millions of ordinary Africans who care deeply about their democracy in Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and elsewhere who have to pick up the pieces.

Britain’s department for international development (DfID) suggests that "international partners cannot and should not try to drive change themselves. Instead they should support domestic drivers of change, provide technical advice and ideas to support reform, and back reforms that are genuinely owned in-country." What a pity the enormous communications machinery and talent behind MPH failed to shed some light on these domestic drivers of change and their aspirations.

The real story that MPH missed this year is the important role that migration and migrants play in tackling poverty. The World Bank, in its Global Economic Prospects 2006 published in November 2005 conducted by Sussex University to indicate that global benefits of a further 3% increase in migration from developing to developed countries could yield a $356 billion increase in global income, dwarfing aid or foreign direct investment (FDI).

The bank believes that official and unofficial remittances combined have a large and statistically significant effect on poverty in labour-sending countries. On average, a 10% increase in the share of remittances in a country’s GDP will lead to a 1.8% decline in the share of its people living on less than $1 per day. In other words, ordinary Africans have their own answers to the poverty they face.

While professing great concern about the plight of poor Africans, MPH campaigners find it difficult to bring themselves to work collaboratively with Africans right here on their doorsteps in Britain to tackle poverty in Africa.

Why the silence on the role that migration and migrants, play in transforming Africa's situation? Two reasons. First, these examples of human agency challenge the belief – promoted by the publicity-fuelled Jesus complex that so many of Africa’s saviours suffer from – that aid is the answer. Second, more migration is decidedly off-message for campaigners so close to Tony Blair's government, which has quotas to fill on the numbers of failed asylum-seekers it sends back, many under dubious circumstances.

If we really care about poverty in Africa then let's liberate ourselves from would-be saviours of the Bob Geldof variety. Let's have a new campaign for 2006: Make Migration Easier.

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