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June 21, 2005

Even Make Poverty History is mostly bunkum

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - continues his series on G8 and Africa: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: How Bob, Tony and Gordon didn't help Make Poverty History - and why that's good.

Even Make Poverty History is mostly bunkum
There are various elements in the arguments of Make Poverty History (MPH), all bad or edged-about with badness, and - more notably - at odds with each other. One is that economic development in the Third World ought to be conducted as though by the French left. Will Hutton would be way too laissez-faire for this lot. A second is that Africa ought to be growing the West's food and cotton for it, which is true but odd to hear from these charmingly soft-left liberals. A third is that we should "drop the debt", which is tantamount to throwing away the only good lever we have. A fourth is that we should not boss African governments around, though bossing them about is probably the only seriously good thing we can do. A fifth is that we should double aid when we realised how hard it is to make aid do good.

You could just about see the real world lurking in the MPH agenda, though it is the view from a trade unionist's, or a vicar's, window rather than that of an entrepreneur.

But Bob's Mob, even more than MPH, will attract people for whom the G8 is a meeting of bad people running a bad system which needs to be over-turned. Their view will be that the world hegemony of capitalism is bad for everybody and especially Africa and that talking about Africa is a good way of getting people to share the wider argument. Sure, MPH has plenty of these "extremist" views, but they are in a mix which includes something like realism.

Who should be generous?
MPH people stress the lack of generosity of Western governments. But actually, of course, the politicians are responding to the meanness of their voters who could, if they felt generous, achieve a good deal through the zillions of private, voluntary groups which exist to channel good works to Africa (and who divert some of the money into campaigning on flawed MPH arguments).

The campaigns habitually talk of Western leaders as though they were powerful men with the world in their hands. But if anyone - it is Western voters who hold the world in their hands, and long before we should complain at our leaders for not spending more of our money on Africans we should note that every four years since Live Aid (and long before that) we could have indicated how much we were interested in shelling out more money. We weren't, and most of us still aren't.

If there is culpability in Western meanness, it is mass meanness.

What's government to do?
As MPH note, Western governments own a good deal of African debt. Western governments control government-to-government aid flows, and government-to-NGO flows. Western governments control some of the terms and financial mechanisms of international trade.

On all these, there are real and very sharply conflicting political pressures on Western governments.

Long experience has made Western governments suspicious of the idea that Africa can usefully absorb much more aid money. Even more controversially, they are wary of the idea that the way to help very poor people is to direct aid efforts directly at them. Recall Clare Short's arrival at the Department for International Development. She went in spouting a "poverty agenda" but within weeks was robustly and sensibly pointing out that the one thing worse than being exploited by capitalism, was not being exploited by capitalism. In 2001 she told the House of Commons:

A million young women in Dhaka work in the textile industry who previously lived in rural areas and had no income. It must not be suggested that such investments do not bring benefits, because they do.

Western governments hardly ever say this sort of thing in public, because to do so infuriates vociferous campaigners. But plenty of people who think and care about Africa worry about the continent's failure to attract capitalism as its worst blight.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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