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Tony Blair on why aid to Africa is necessary but insufficient

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Wednesday, 24 November 2010 15:00, updated on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 10:31

From interventions in the aid debate to the work of the African Governance Initiative, ?Britain’s former prime minister has not forgotten his commitment to the continent ?and is now focusing on programmes that build capacity.

Read a full transcript of the interview.

Since leaving office in 2007, pushed out the door by doomed deputy Gordon Brown, Tony Blair has worked as an envoy for the Middle East quartet, launched the Windrush and Firerush consultancies and enjoyed a run of lucrative speaking engagements. But he remains engaged with Africa, which was a focus of his premiership during the G8 summits and the launch of the Commission for Africa (CFA) in 2005. Blair has since launched a pro bono consultancy called the African Governance Initiative (AGI), helped relaunch the CFA and called for a ‘Marshall Plan’ of development aid for the continent.

At the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit, the emphasis was on increasing the sheer volume of aid; the ?efficacy of aid was not really a subject of debate. In recent years however, a counter-chorus of voices has risen to call for more efficient aid delivery and implementation. The main point of the anti-aid argument, from the likes of former World Bank director William Easterly and economist Dambisa Moyo, is that poorly-delivered aid can do more harm than good. In particular, they argue that an unending stream of aid can take the pressure off poorly-performing governments, insulating them from the demands of their people.

Waste not, want not?

Proponents of aid are now taking this critique on board. “I completely buy the argument that aid in itself is not the answer. But to go to the opposite extreme and say that aid is all wasted, I think that is just wrong. The truth is that aid is necessary but insufficient,” says Blair. But there does not seem to be a genuine change in Blair’s thinking on the central point made by authors like Moyo about letting governments off the hook. “It depends what you are spending the aid on. If you’re spending the aid on health programmes in a particular country, and they’re being delivered by reputable people, then actually they are making a real difference. We have dramatically reduced the deaths from HIV/AIDS. We’re reducing maternal mortality, infant mortality and so on.” ?

For Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat, which tells the story of Kenya’s former anti-corruption chief John Githongo, it is exactly this charitable drive which leads to unintended consequences in policy. The unprecedented rise in overseas development aid under Blair’s administration – with the creation of the Department for International Development (DfID) in 1997 and British aid to Africa more than tripling to £1bn by 2006 – meant that there was increasing pressure on DfID officials to get money out of the door.Disbursement was king.

So does Blair believe that DfID made bad decisions as a result of the pressure to deliver? “I hope not. I don’t know enough about individual decisions to make that judgment. What I do know is that in my time in office, DfID really focused on the quality of government.” For the former prime minister, aid needs to go hand in hand with good governance. “The fact is that aid is really important, but in the end, the future of Africa is in Africa’s hands. This is what we are working on now in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia: the idea of the effect of strong leaders in government, combined with attracting inward investment from reputable private-sector people. So, the aid debate you can carry on with, but I just feel that people like Dambisa exaggerate to make a point.”?

The AGI, a charity Blair set up in 2008, is run out of his offices in London’s Grosvenor Square. It only operates in countries where it is invited – currently Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. For the former prime minister, the strength of the AGI is that “when you are offering advice to politicians, the important thing is that it comes from somebody who has sat on the other side of the table and tried taking decisions. That’s a big benefit, and I will have very frank conversations – conversations that a consultant probably could never have.”?

The AGI sends a team of young professionals, often people who have worked at Downing Street, the White House, top law firms or investment banks, to work in African countries. They will then help conceive programmes to build up the capacity of the people around the president. “You’ve got really clever young people [in these countries], but they need to be exposed to ways of working that are really effective.”?

Governance, of course, is a relative concept. So what values lie at the heart of Blair’s vision of democracy? When asked about the merit of a ?’benign authoritarianism’ of the sort seen in Singapore, Blair believes it has its place: “It depends on the state of development of the country. You make a judgement for each case.Personally, I believe you always want to be getting to democracy in the end, but there will be occasions when, as a result of particular circumstances of a country, they need to develop over time. I wouldn’t suggest for a day that China goes for Western-style suffrage.”

In Rwanda, Blair warns of a still- fragile situation, a history that has to be surmounted. “Now that being said, it is important that there is an evolution of government – as I’m sure there will be – but my basic view of Paul Kagame is that he is doing his best for the country and is essentially someone who has got the best interests of his country at heart.” This does not change the fact that recent events have made things awkward for the AGI in Rwanda. The non-fatal shooting in South Africa of disaffected former intelligence chief Kayumba Nyamwasa, believed to be on the verge of making allegations of corruption involving President Kagame’s entourage, the murder of newspaper editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage in Kigali and complaints of harassment by the political opposition all make it difficult to adopt an uncritical pose.

Extenuating circumstances?

For Blair, everyone has to be accountable, but he prefers to see things in terms of mitigating factors. “I don’t think it’s a question of giving anyone a pass or anything like that, but it’s about taking a view about how the country is developing. I have watched Rwanda over these past two years develop in what is quite a remarkable way, in terms of benefits to the ?people, increased income and ?increased services.”?

But the problem of moral authority continues for Western powers and leaders who wish to give lessons to ?Africa. In what Michela Wrong describes as “a hammer blow” for anti-corruption campaigners, the UK decided to halt a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the alleged bribery of Saudi officials by arms company BAE Systems. Blair denies that this has affected Britain’s ability to nudge countries forward on governance. “I don’t think it was affected at all. It was a completely different thing: it was an investigation that was going nowhere and caused a real problem with the relationship between the Saudi government and ourselves. Incidentally those allegations were flatly denied so, to be honest, no one has ever raised that connection to ?the work we do in Africa.”

This article was first published in the August-September 2010 edition of The Africa Report.

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