Tony Blair, interview transcript

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Monday, 23 August 2010 07:50, updated on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 10:32

A transcript of our interview with former British prime minister Tony Blair from late June 2010. Read Nicholas Norbrook’s profile on why Blair thinks aid to Africa is necessary but insufficient.

The Africa Report: During your premiership you presided over a dramatic increase in development aid. How do you respond to critics like Dambisa Moyo who believe that this unending stream of aid is creating the wrong structural incentives and facilitating bad governments by sheltering elites from democratic pressure?

Tony Blair: It depends what you are spending the aid on. But 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 deaths from HIV/AIDS. We’re reducing maternal mortality, infant mortality and so on.

I completely buy the argument that aid in itself is not the answer – that’s my thing. But to go to the opposite extreme and say that aid is all wasted, I think is just wrong. The truth is aid is necessary but insufficient. What is absolutely necessary to put alongside that is what I now do with my charitable work, which is to put alongside the capacity and the ability for governments to function well – help governments with transparency and their effectiveness to deliver for their people. And that’s the best thing we can do, but it is a partnership.

Do you think there is an overly charitable approach to Africa, meaning that we might fail to hold people to the same standards? Take John Githongo, a former anti-corruption chief in Kenya, who made it clear that people were very irritated by some of the work that he was doing. By ramping up aid, do you think the pressure to disburse may have lead to poor decisions?

Well I hope not – I mean I don’t know enough about individual decisions to make that judgement. What I do know is that certainly in my time in office, the Department for International Development really focused on the quality of governance. But I think we have got to demystify all this … The fact is that aid is really, really important, but in the end the future of Africa is in Africa’s hands. Africa’s destiny is in Africa’s hands and the idea of what we work on now in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the idea is of strong effective leaders in government combined with attracting inward investment from reputable private sector people – this is the key for Africa.

So the aid debate you can carry on with. I just feel that people like Dambisa, they exaggerate to make a point. I understand what they’re saying but I think they exaggerate it. The thing that I am focused on when I was in office and am now, is what I would call the partnership idea rather than donor/recipient one – to that extent I agree. You want a relationship that’s not based on simply handing out money, but that’s not what most African nations want today, they want a partnership.

So what of those who say Western initiatives can help nudge governments forward?

You can do two things. First of all, obviously, you can work with governments to make sure that there are proper systems of transparency and accountability. So, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, for example, is very important in this, in getting some honesty into contracts for mineral resources and so on. But the second thing is what African governments often need – this is also true incidentally of governments in any other part of the world – is that they need systems of government that deliver to people.

So you can have the money for your healthcare programme, but if you don’t have the capacity within your health department to make it work and to deliver it effectively out on the ground, it’s not going to happen.

One of the things we do when we work alongside the presidents of various countries is we help them focus on delivering their priorities. I don’t tell them what their priorities are, they’re the boss. They say, ‘look, our priorities may be agriculture, inward investment and healthcare.’ We help work with them on delivering those priorities and creating, from the best practice around the world, systems that can deliver this. My teams go alongside the presidents and their teams. We actually live on the ground, we don’t fly in and fly out, we live on the ground with them, and we build their own capacity up to deliver this.

For example, in Rwanda we helped them take all the different bodies dealing with investment and put the Rwanda Development Board into action. It has now got a strong chief executive, a strong group of people doing the work alongside them and of course it’s delivering results. That’s what you need to do – you need to create effective leaders of government. It’s all about getting things done.

On transparency, how badly do you think Britain’s ability to support good governance in Africa was affected by the halting of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into BAE Systems?

I don’t think it’s affected at all. It was a completely different thing – it was an investigation that would have gone absolutely nowhere and caused a real problem with the relationship between the Saudi government and ourselves. Incidentally those allegations were completely and flatly denied, so to be honest, no one ever raised that connection to the work we do in Africa.

People know perfectly well what the issue is here. The issue is making sure that as contracts for the exploitation of resources are developed over time, that they are developed in a proper, open and transparent way, with contracts being delivered in the right way.

One of the things we’re looking at now is, for example, providing a service where we get people from top quality Western firms, legal practices and others, who deal with this type of contractual negotiation, to sit alongside and help governments conduct these negotiations. These are the types of things, I think, which really matter.

Do you think democracy is always something to support, no matter what the level of development of the country? Is there room for something a bit more in the style of Singapore?

I think it depends on the state of development of the country, and I think you make a judgement in each case. Personally, I think 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 universal suffrage, but I think in time countries move to this position.

Do you think Rwanda is somewhat in an interesting phase, where it has to have an authoritarian government?

Rwanda has been a country that’s gone through a genocide that since the Holocaust is the worst that’s happened in the world. It’s still a fragile situation which they need to guard very carefully. Now that said, its important that there is an evolution of government – as I am sure there will be. But my basic view of [President] Paul Kagame is that he is doing his best for the country and is essentially someone who’s got the best interests of his country at heart and has taken them on quite an astonishing story of development in the last few years.

At the moment [late June 2010], they’re talking about political harassment to the opposition. There was one general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who actually started putting facts out there about corruption in the government and got shot in the stomach in South Africa in June. Rwanda’s at a particular junction, but given the good that Kagame’s undoubtedly done – and you have to look at all the metrics, he’s done incredibly well – what should one do? Do you give them a free pass?

I don’t know enough about what’s actually happened in the particular incident, but I don’t think it’s a question of giving anyone a pass or anything like that. It is a question of 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 the benefits to the people – increased income, increased services.

Now, where there are issues, we will raise them. But my basic view of Paul Kagame is that he is somebody who’s got the best interests of his country at heart and has actually done an amazing job for Rwanda over these past years.

Would you ever consider campaigning on an issue like capital flight? Illicit financial flows coming out of Africa through corporate tax evasion, money laundering and corruption can actually dwarf anything coming in, in terms of aid. It’s a bit like global warming. Shouldn’t we spend time insulating our roofs rather than trying to finance nuclear power?

I think the best answer to all these things is to create successful, well-run economies [with] open and transparent governments to match, and I think that’s the way you deal with capital flight. For me, it’s my focus to get these teams alongside the presidents of these countries and to get their priorities delivered – that’s what I’m focused on. The issue to do with capital flight is an issue I’m aware of, but it’s not something taken up as a specific focus of a campaign.

On the other hand, when I look at the situation of Africa today, I think the single most important thing for it is to attract good investments, and the moment people think it’s a place to invest with proper security in that investment, then you’re going to get into the situation where the capital is going to be staying.

Can you explain the mechanics of the African Governance Initiative. How does it work from start to finish?

Well it’s a charity, and it basically offers two things. First of all, I have a political interaction with the presidents – so that’s different from a traditional consultancy because I think the important thing when you’re offering advice to politicians is to get that advice from somebody who’s sat on the other side of the table and tried making decisions. That’s a big benefit. I will have very frank conversations – probably conversations that most consultants could never have, but I can have them as one political leader to another.

The second thing is we then hire a team of young people who come and live in country – that team [from] JP Morgan or they may have been in Downing Street or in the American system. What happens then is, they are incredibly committed, they work alongside and build up the capacity of people around the president. In Rwanda and Sierra Leone – we just started in Liberia – you’ve got really clever young people, but they need to be exposed to ways of working that are really effective. Once they are, they can do it themselves. So after a time we kind of move on, but that small, sharp unit of people – they have done fabulous work, I mean amazing work.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options