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June 22, 2005

Let's not demand "Just do something..."

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. Richard D. North argues that politicians should not do something - anything - just to be seen to be doing something. Sadly Blair and Brown, argues North, are extremely unsuited to resist such posturing.

Let's not demand "Just do something…"
The degree of suffering in Africa demands a passionate and immediate response. But Make Poverty History (MPH) and, even more, Bob Geldof's Mob infuriate the thoughtful (and should infuriate the compassionate) by lobbing accusations and demands at the relatively innocent and relatively powerless Western leaders. Bob's Mob will demand more generosity with no conception of whose generosity is needed or how it should be applied. Insofar as they have a vague idea about what policies should be pursued, they are as much likely to do harm as good.

So what to do?
We seek to maximise the likelihood of good and minimise the likelihood of harm. The best means of achieving this is to emphasise what voluntary groups, Civil Society and philanthropy can do. We can urge people to be personally generous to an NGO of their choice. We can urge people to ask that NGO to report on the actual goodness it achieves with their donations. We can urge the NGOs to discuss honestly and robustly the policies they urge on Western and African governments. We can hope that there is much tougher discussion about the realities of African suffering (both its causes and its relief). We can urge people to refuse to "protest" when there is such poverty of argument amongst the protestors.

We can also ask our leaders to stop grandstanding. Their aid ministries and the international "Bretton Woods" bodies (World Bank, IMF) are very important. But all these must talk very frankly to what they can and can't achieve. Broadly, they can help Third World countries become safe for capitalism, and maybe – this is not a contradiction – for well-run welfare systems.

It is vastly tempting for political leaders to seek support wherever they can find it. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of MPH and Bob's Mob is that appeasing them will take leaders toward a very small but quite badly misdirected use of tax-payers' money. But worse, they will talk speciously about what they can hope to achieve. This is a very dangerous tendency in the hands of a Tony Blair or a Gordon Brown.

Why Tony and Gordon are so awful
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown suck up to the likes of Bob Geldof and Bono for all kinds of reasons. Firstly, these are politicians who have Bob Dylan envy. They are from the Imagine school of political thought. Secondly, these are politicians who believe that Bob and Bono "deliver" the support of young people and the left and cannot – politically – be ignored. Thirdly, after their military activities they need both the "peace-and-love" vote and to cock a snook at Bush's White House. Africa gives them these opportunities.

But we should see how Brown and Blair are trying to personalise to themselves the generosity which actually belongs to the tax-payer. They partly inoculate themselves against charges of political self-aggrandisement by claiming their consciences are touched. (Blair says he fears for his conscience over Africa). We should remind them that we are not interested in their souls but in their policies, and that neither conscience nor policy can be sub-contracted to MPH.

The tax-payers are canny, and perhaps mean. A recent YouGov poll showed that by a very large margin tax-payers do not share the Brown/Blair/Bono/Bob/MPH view of the world. [Daily Telegraph, 4th June, 2005: Vast majority thinks Africa aid is wasted, poll shows.]

The media play Mr Brown's game for him. Brown is proposing an increase in tax-payer generosity toward Africa. So are most G8 leaders. The difference between them is about how to do it. Brown is often reported as urging generosity upon a reluctant G8: actually, he is urging a particular mechanism which other leaders don't share (and then they disagree amongst themselves about the mechanisms they prefer). Besides, G8 leaders have been more "generous" over recent years, not less. Much good it does them, politically.

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

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The money would be much better spent sending Hernando De Soto on an all Africa tour.

Posted by: EU Serf at June 22, 2005 03:40 PM
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