How to give Africa hope

Beware of politicians in search of soundbites and photo opportunities. As you read this, Tony Blair will be on his much-trailed tour of Africa. Somebody in Downing Street has cottoned on to the idea that millions of young Britons care more about the fate of what the Economist calls "the hopeless continent" than they do about the arrival of the 07:57 from Faversham, and that regular donors to Save the Children exceed by a factor of three the combined membership of the main political parties. So four countries in four days: a catch in the voice and a tear in the eye as the PM meets Aids victims unable to afford expensive drugs produced by western pharmaceutical companies and surveys the effects of wars fought with western-manufactured weapons; then home to the measles epidemic and carjackings in south London.

Yes, it is easy to mock and, to some degree, we should: we are all, including the celebrity pop stars with their fundraising concerts, guilty of a certain posturing when it comes to Africa. But politics is about symbols: raising flags, storming palaces, tipping tea leaves into the sea. Mr Blair has a talent for grand gestures and OTT compassion. Let him use it. If there is reason to doubt his sincerity, there is more to doubt our own, even as we write another cheque to Oxfam. To give Africa hope - which means to give it justice - requires enormous challenges to entrenched western interests. Only a very special kind of leadership can persuade us to support those challenges. The comparison with America's Marshall Plan for Europe in the late 1940s - what Churchill called "the least sordid act in history" - may be an apt one, but people do not always think it through. Today, the richest countries spend 0.2 per cent of GDP on foreign aid and America has rejected a proposal for a target of 0.7 per cent. Marshall aid involved the transfer of 1 per cent of US GDP for five years - and it followed four years of war in which Americans had become accustomed to making sacrifices and paying high taxes. Moreover, in the wake of Roosevelt's New Deal and the victories over Germany and Japan, it was a rare period when Americans had some faith in the capacity of government to intervene for the better.

Justice for Africa is more than a question of cash. The agenda is daunting. First, as Mr Blair implied in his speech to the Labour conference last autumn, American and European governments must stop sheltering their industries, and particularly their farmers, behind tariffs, quotas and subsidies. Rich countries spend on their farmers six times what they spend on foreign aid. Africa could become the bread basket of the world; the west's failure to allow it to trade its produce freely turns lectures about sound economic management and good governance into the worst kind of hypocrisy.

Second, the west must stop financing and supplying Africa's wars. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Britain exports £400m of arms to Africa every year, a figure that has risen sharply under Labour. And the deals are subsidised by the taxpayer, through export credits and government sales promotion. The regional war around the Congo, which Mr Blair deplored in his conference speech and which has taken three million lives in fighting and famine, involved Zimbabwe, Uganda, Angola, Namibia and Burundi. UK manufacturers were granted licences to sell arms to them all. In 2000, the UK sold £2.5m of arms to the Moroccan government, which is prosecuting a brutal war in the western Sahara. UK arms sales to South Africa are worth twice what goes out in aid. Even if these guns and rockets are never fired in anger, the effect is still to plunge African countries further into debt.

Third, the rich countries must go much further in cancelling African debt. Though there has been some debt relief over the past two years, the poorest countries have still seen only a one-third reduction in their interest payments.

Fourth - and this is really a question of free trade again - the west must lift many of its restrictions on migrant workers. The quickest and cheapest way for Mr Blair to raise the life expectancy of a Sierra Leonian child (46 at present) is to take the child and its parents back with him on the plane to London. Free movement of labour is not only a blow for justice in a world that allows capital to move freely; it is also a highly effective form of aid, because most migrant workers remit part of their wages to their families, thus allowing western money to bypass corrupt governments and greedy elites.

If Mr Blair were to embrace this agenda, a political storm would break: British farmers facing ruin, workers' jobs jeopardised, foreign scroungers flooding the country, and so on and on until the editors of the Daily Mail and the Sun expired from hysterical indignation. This Prime Minister lives in terror that anybody might think he would put a penny on income tax. Can we really believe he will rise to the challenge of Africa? We must hope he can surprise us.

Now you see it, now you don't

Has the American military already secretly disposed of part of President Bush's "axis of evil"? Reliable reports sometimes emerge from Iran, but has anyone actually been to Iraq or North Korea lately? Why are Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il so quiet these days? The questions should be asked because, we learn, the Pentagon cannot account for 25 per cent of what it spends. Donald Rumsfeld, US secretary of defence, has admitted that $2.3trn (yes, trillion; $8,000 for every man, woman and child in America) has gone missing. "We know it's gone, but we don't know what they spent it on," said an auditor. A war, perhaps? The French intellectual Jean Baudrillard said that the Gulf war never really happened and, in Le Monde recently, he seemed to deliver a similar verdict on the Afghan war: it was "a pseudo-event", he argued. The logic of this must be that, if the US wanted to fight a real war, it would do so without telling anybody. Reporters should hurry at once to Baghdad and Pyongyang.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back