Pity the financiers in the heart of darkness

It's the people of Africa who are being ripped off.

There is a deep rooted and pernicious view, amongst those claiming to want to "help" Africa that proves difficult to shake. It says that Africa's impoverishment can be laid primarily at the door of a group of corrupt leaders. The solution, it says, is not to stop giving aid – after all we Europeans have a mission to help those less fortunate, whether their fault or not – but to impose heavy conditions on any aid we provide and any debt we cancel. The implication is that Africans are unable to govern themselves, and that we, who have centuries more experience of running things to a certain standard, need to save them from themselves.

This is the basic argument put forward by Eric Joyce MP ("Congo's victory against a 'vulture fund' is hollow", The Guardian, 19 July). Joyce is right that vulture funds form part of a much bigger picture of looting. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth stopping shady hedge funds profiteering from the odious debts of Congo on the grounds that Congo's leaders will be unable to use that money properly anyway. Congo's problems do not, according to Joyce, arise from decades – centuries – of the most horrible exploitation the world has ever witnessed, but from greedy national leaders who actually need to do more to encourage Western financiers into the country to help them use their resources more efficiently.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has certainly not had the governments it deserves. But we do not have to go back even to one of the most brutal colonial regimes of the nineteenth century to discover why. In 1960 Congo's first democratic Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the help of the American and Belgian secret services. Brought to power was one of the most corrupt leaders Africa has ever seen – Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mobutu's corruption was actively supported by his paymasters in the West. When an International Monetary Fund mission to Congo (then Zaire) in 1982 documented the extent of Mobutu's corruption, telling creditors there was 'no chance of getting their money back', they proceeded to increase lending to the autocrat. Little wonder that Mobutu left a mountain of debt to his country. This is the debt that Joyce believes we – who lent the money and fuelled the corruption – should hold against the country now. Where he thinks the moral legitimacy to do this comes from is unclear.

This debt has cost DRC very dearly. Some of it was cancelled two years ago – but only after DRC spent 8 years jumping through hoops and spending $2 billion. But even this pales into significance compared to the taxes lost to DRC as multinational corporations have plundered the country of resources, paying laughable amounts of tax on their profits (Heather Stewart, "£13tn: hoard hidden from taxman by global elite", 22 July).

The idea that these companies are put off operating in DRC by the levels of corruption in the government only serves to highlight the double standards in Joyce's arguments. After all corruption takes two. It is not simply that members of Congo's elite benefit from corrupt mining deals, so do those offering the bribes and escaping their taxes. Joyce is right we should look at both sides of corruption - as we’ve done in the recent case of British development funds in the James Ibori trial in Niger delta. But it has to be seen in a wider context.

Joyce does have praise for one African government – a genuine case of the "deserving poor". One government has been good enough to deserve the generosity of the British public. That government is Rwanda, which has developed beyond all expectations since the horrendous genocide it experienced in 1994.

Certainly Rwanda has used a development technique familiar to the corporate interests Joyce appears to applaud: plunder. Rwanda has benefited hugely from plunder of Congo's resources and the continued destabilisation of DRC. It's ongoing role in DRC is a key reason for the succession of venal governments and ongoing war which DRC's people continue to suffer. As time has gone by, Rwanda's government itself has become more and more autocratic. Perhaps it is extraordinary, perhaps it is perfectly explicable that this country has become a poster child of Western "aid".

Joyce is quite right that defeating one vulture fund is going to make little difference to the people of DRC. The issues at stake are far bigger. Vultures are really just a symbol of the forces tearing at Africa's resources – the financiers and businessmen who are not, as Joyce would contend, being "ripped off" but are themselves ripping off a people who has suffered at the hands of the West for a very long time.

Nick Dearden is the director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Congolese women walk with their belongings to the border. Photograph: Getty Images
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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood