The latest research shows that the rich nations of Europe and North America, numbering some 50 million people, have the same income as the 2.7 billion poor people in the rest of the world.
The prime minister flew to Africa last night surrounded by a cloud of entirely predictable but none the less odious criticism of his trip. Much of it centres on yet more time spent out of Britain, as if this will somehow sabotage the recovery of the National Health Service, the efficient running of the trains, and the education of every last child in Britain. To say that a British prime minister should have no locus in the resolution of Africa’s problems is isolationism of the most dangerous and stupid sort.
At the Labour Party conference last year Mr. Blair said: ”The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world.” He believes that the world community can heal the scar, but insists, with considerable sense, that if we do not it will become deeper and angrier. The prime minister has already said that it is a matter of moral and practical sense to bring help to Africa. The latest research shows that the rich nations of Europe and North America, numbering some 50 million people, have the same income as the 2.7 billion poor people in the rest of the world. Many of the poorest and most afflicted of them are in Africa. The world is unfair, and that is not news. Yet there is no reason why the rich should not do something to redress the balance, indeed any moral code worth consulting suggests that this is an imperative.
Practical reasons are also important.
Terrorism is not the sole prerogative of the poor; many of the September 11 terrorists were middle-class and affluent. But poverty and despair are capable of being manipulated by evil people for their own ends. The war against terrorism is not just a military one, mercifully. It must also include addressing the problems which make poor and desperate people vulnerable to misleading lies.
The means of delivering the people of Africa from the misery suffered by the majority are not easily applied. To begin with, it is important not to regard every African or African nation as a personal or national failure. There are many talented people on the continent who only need an opportunity to shine. Mr. Blair is not alone in the government in recognising what must be done. Gordon Brown, the chancellor, is also committed to helping Africa. Early in 2000 he announced that the UK will no longer collect debt repayments from the world’s 41 poorest countries. This was hailed, rightly, as a ”great moral gesture”. Unfortunately, others in a position to help did not do so. By the end of 2000 the poorest 52 countries still owed $376bn and only $12bn of the $110bn debt cancellation promised by other countries had actually taken place.
Britain, then, has a worthwhile track record, although our growing arms sales to Africa do not enhance it. In 1999 African nations spent (pounds) 522m on arms deals in Britain and such purchases are regarded as a major revenue drain on poor African countries. The most recent example is Tanzania where Britain is selling a $40m military air traffic control system to the government. Bizarrely, this equals one-third of the Tanzanian health budget and the deal will effectively be financed by debt relief. That sits ill alongside Mr. Blair’s genuine efforts to help African countries. His African trip is seen very much as an introduction rather than an immediate further involvement. His plan is to link with the indigenous African development plan called the New Partnership for Africa. Mr. Blair envisages the rich G8 developed nations producing an aid package which will work together with the NPA to increase aid and private sector investment and favourable trading conditions. African countries will respond by preventing and resolving conflicts and by promoting good government and economic reforms.
These are ambitious goals. They will not work immediately but they are worthwhile. They need the involvement of committed politicians from the rich world. Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown should be congratulated for their willingness to give a lead.
The Herald (U.K.), February 7, 2002