Friday, January 7, 2005

Dr Brown, I presume?

The African explorer David Livingstone set out in 1865, at the age of 52, on his final and famous journey to Africa. At roughly the same age, almost a century and a half later, Gordon Brown, another Scot with grand ideas, has travelled to the continent.

Brown, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer or Finance Minister, leaves behind the alleged rifts between himself and Tony Blair for a fleeting six day visit to Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. As he grinds through his relentless schedule in Africa the tensions with Blair, which will ultimately determine whether Brown will follow him as British Prime Minister or not, may well seem a million miles away.

Brown's African mission is to put Africa at the centre of plans for the G8, for which the UK holds the presidency this year.

Remarkably, however, Brown was last on the continent seven years ago for a short stopover in Johannesburg. He can hardly claim to have a feel for the place. This has not stopped him, though, from routinely arguing for an aid injection and a debt relief strategy for Africa over the last ten years.

In a recent speech he called for a Marshall Plan for the developing world. He has argued that at least $50-billion more a year in foreign aid is needed, effectively doubling the current amount spent by the rich countries on aid. His government, he says, is committed to an ongoing process of debt relief. He has stated that insisting on payment of debts by certain African countries is "unjust" because "it offends human dignity" and is "morally wrong".

Importantly he has reiterated a commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals. These include the promises by wealthy nations to assist in ensuring that by 2015:

- Every child will be at school.

- Avoidable infant deaths will be prevented.

- Poverty will be halved.

So Brown is making the right noises as far as addressing poverty in Africa is concerned.

Of course, in reality, the goals he talks about are a long way off. He has confessed, for example, that in sub-Saharan Africa at present progress, poverty would only be halved by 2150; a remarkable 135 years behind schedule.

His visit to Africa will undoubtedly help bring home the reality of some of the more desperate parts of the continent. Hopefully this will strengthen his seeming resolve to meet his commitments.

Needless to say there is no room for complacency. There are many lofty ideals and pledges the world has failed to meet. Most affluent countries are still not complying with the recommended level of 0,7% of GDP for foreign aid, Britain included. There is no guarantee any of the prosperous nations will follow through on the proposed plans or alter their trade and debt practices.

Paul Ashwin / Edinburgh Castle on the day of the
Make Poverty History March / CC BY-SA 2.0
This is one of the reasons The Make Poverty History campaign was launched in the UK on January 1, 2005. It is a coalition of UK-based charities, unions, nongovernment organisations and celebrities, who have come together to demand that well-off countries increase aid, improve working conditions for the poor, cancel world debt, and use fair trade practices. The coalition is part of the worldwide Global Call to Action Against Poverty which plans to continue to robustly raise the issue of poverty in 2005.

So the stage is set once again for a showdown between the sweet-talking governments and campaigners. Somewhere in the middle of this are the African governments, many of whom will have to get their own act together if they are to become genuine "partners" in the new wave of development Brown promises. But that is another story.

In the meantime, in the spirit of the new year, and in defiance of the Tsunami tragedy that marked it, I feel I want to give Gordon Brown the benefit of the doubt. I long for the day when there is a good news story about the African continent.

So, right now, as Chancellor Brown, in his open-neck shirt and chinos presses the flesh with dozens of expectant Africans, I am going to cut him some slack. I want to see if he can put his money where his mouth is.

This is his big test. If he can deliver the goods, and survive the whiplash smile of Tony Blair and dodge the political daggers in Britain poised for his back, he may well be a British Prime Minister to be remembered.

If he fails, unlike Dr Livingstone, I cannot imagine anyone with a serious social conscience sending out a Henry Stanley-style search party to rescue him from the political wilderness. Brown will either ride on the wave of goodwill that is currently sweeping the UK, or he will find his political career, like Livingstone's heart, buried in Africa.

To find out more about The Make Poverty History campaign.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 14 January 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

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