THE BLOG

Gleneagles Didn't Change Africa, Africa Changed Africa

05/03/2013 11:05 GMT | Updated 04/05/2013 10:12 BST

This weekend, in an act of fraternal solidarity for which he will receive no credit, Tony Blair wrote in support of David Cameron's commitment to African development and in particular the 43-year-old pledge to devote 0.7% of national income to the aid budget.

Blair should feel some sympathy for Cameron, being out alone on a limb supporting things his whole party seems to be against. Prime ministers are required to walk and chew gum as the Americans would say, so the intensity of right-wing noise about foreign aid or gay people shouldn't be mistaken for the limited amount of time a PM spends on overseas aid or marriage policy.

Blair's gesture comes as Cameron starts to prepare for the G8 summit later this year in Northern Ireland, the first to be held in the UK since 2005. Tony Blair declared the focus of that year's summit to be Africa, and his article mentioned the Commission for Africa, something I had not thought about for a long time and assumed was long forgotten.

I was actually at the launch of the Commission for Africa in May 2005. While the Commission made a big show about having African input into the consultations, I couldn't help but notice that the Ethiopian I was sat next to was one of the few Africans in the audience. Everyone else seemed much of a piece: officials from BINGOs (Big NGOs), western journalists, a few civil servants, and Labour Party workers.

One thing struck me enough to write it down at the time. Asked how many of the report's conclusions were now government policy, the senior FCO official replied: "all of it". One day in the future, I thought, someone might hold you to those words.

So what would Africa be like today if all the recommendations of the Commission for Africa had become policy, and not just in the UK but across the G8? The increase in aid that Blair applauds hasn't been anywhere near what was called for. Official aid jumped from $23.6bn in 2005 to $31.5bn in 2006, but then fell during the global financial crisis so that overall levels have barely increased. Assuming 2012 disbursements held at the same levels as for 2011 then total OECD aid to Africa to date was $231bn. Extrapolating this to 2015 would give $320bn of aid to Africa for the total period 2005-2015. This is well below the $500bn - $650bn promised. Blair is simply wrong when he categorises the legacy of the CfA on aid as an immense achievement.

Debt reduction has been somewhat better, but the role that Gleneagles played shouldn't be over-stated. Debt was the original issue that the Make Poverty History and Millennium Development Goal movements organised around. There was a well thought out campaign with specific objectives in the shape of the Jubilee Debt Campaign. As the One Campaign reports the World Bank HIPC and MDRI programmes have raised GDP by 2% in 36 African countries in the first decade of this century by postponing or cancelling $35bn of long-term debt and have led to an average 3% increase in social spending ensuring that some escape the debt trap permanently.

Achievements in Africa should be recognised as African achievements. This study shows that the missing aid was made up for by growth in Africa itself. Foreign direct investment in Africa actually declined in the second half of the last decade due to the financial crash, including from the BRICs, and have only now recovered to their 2006 level. Yet African economies have comfortably outperformed both the BRICs and donors over the same period.

The Gleneagles process led to some good things. The Investment Climate Facility for Africa, the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa, and Business Action for Africa were all germinated at least in part by the CfA. It is also fair to say that just because African growth can be attributed to others, it doesn't imply that the G8 didn't help.

If the legacy of Gleneagles was unambiguously positive, Blair would now be talking about a post-aid world, but this is not the language he uses. Governance, or "getting things done" as he puts it, implies African ownership, but the big news in the development world seems as reliably oriented to the donors as ever.

I don't wish to minimise such work as the IF campaign which focuses on an important weakness of the MDGs, hunger, and it includes smaller NGOs working on the frontline (go Afrikids)! However, the leaders of IF are the aid-industry usual suspects - Oxfam, ActionAid, Cafod, Christian Aid - who seem to focus on the marketing as much as the details. Just as with Blair, who seemed quite at home in the BINGO-Government complex, they are recruiting the successes of others in the service of their cause. China accounted for 40% of all the people lifted out of poverty over the period of the MDGs and the BRIC nations take this total to nearly two-thirds. Yet the policy positioning of IF seems to be: 'we met the poverty Goal and so on to the next thing.' Whatever happened to finishing what you started?

David Cameron could use the symbolism of a British G8 to build on the legacy of Gleneagles 2005, and perhaps this was the good-natured suggestion behind Blair's piece. Cameron has so far indicated that he favours more broad themes focusing on the three-'Ts': Trade, Tax, and Transparency. I really hope that he doesn't conclude that what is needed is another report written by white people about Africa's problems and how to solve them.

The late, great Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, director of the MDGs for Africa and self-styled Global Agitator, said that trying to develop Africa by calling for poverty reduction is a bit like trying to win a war by calling for bullet reduction. Unfortunately, poverty reduction is still the language of the BINGO-Government complex. It is entirely problem-led, assumes that things like poverty and wealth are divorced from the systems they operate in, and can be overcome by some external and paternal force. It's also increasingly missing the point.