Blair's parting drive to aid Africa

The British prime minister wraps up his farewell tour to Africa this week, ahead of next week's G-8 summit in Germany.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Not so long ago, many in the West hailed British Prime Minister Tony Blair as Africa's new savior: the European leader who shamed other rich countries into helping the impoverished continent he called the "scar on the conscience of the world."

But as he wraps up his final visit to Africa as prime minister this week, Mr. Blair is fighting growing criticism from aid groups and African governments that the Group of Eight (G-8) countries' much-heralded promises of assistance have come to naught.

Blair says the trip will build momentum ahead of next week's G-8 summit in Germany, where he will push for leaders to follow through on promises made in 2005. But it also shows the complexities of the G-8's relationship with this continent, as well as the skepticism with which many Africans view Western interventions.

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"His personal leadership did ensure that Africa was high on the G-8's agenda like never before," says Aditi Sharma, head of the HIV-AIDS campaign for the nonprofit group Action Aid. "But now ... with lots of those promises off track, African people are starting to lose their trust."

This week, Blair visited Libya, where he praised improved relations with Muammar Qaddafi, and Sierra Leone, where he pledged $10 million for African Union peacekeepers. In South Africa on Thursday, Blair met with anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, called for tougher action against Sudan over the crisis in Darfur, and emphasized the priority he has given to Africa during his tenure.

In a speech at the University of South Africa, Blair said both the West and Africa faced two possible paths.

"One is chosen by countries like South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana and many others, reinforcing economic growth with good governance and the stamping out of violence and corruption," he said. "The other, the path of Zimbabwe or Sudan, where bad government and violent oppression send the country's economy spiraling down. Our choice is to support the good. Africa's challenge is to eliminate the bad."

Pushing G-8 to honor aid pledges

Many aid experts expect Blair to repeat his calls for fellow leaders – most pointedly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who next week is hosting the annual G-8 summit – to step up their assistance to Africa.

Antipoverty advocates have criticized the G-8 countries for lagging far behind the promises they made when Blair hosted the Gleneagles G-8 summit in 2005. Among other pledges, the rich nations promised wide-scale debt relief and a doubling of aid to Africa by 2010, to $50 billion from about $25 billion.

Although there have been improvements – 22 countries have had their debt canceled and some 20 million more children have entered school, according to the aid group Oxfam – actual aid from G-8 nations decreased last year, and estimates show the G-8 missing their 2010 target by almost $30 billion.

Blair's successor, finance minister Gordon Brown, has worked closely with the prime minister on poverty alleviation and will probably continue Britain's leadership on African issues, aid experts say. But many advocates believe it is Blair, scheduled to step down this month, who can best pressure other G-8 nations.

"[Britain] has performed well ahead of other G-8 countries, delivering large increases in aid," Oxfam director Barbara Stocking said in a statement. "But despite a significant increase in aid last year, even the UK is still not definitively on target to meet its promises from two years ago. Other countries are way off track, and if Blair does not push them at the G-8 meeting in Germany, then his legacy in Africa will be at risk. Before Blair leaves office he must persuade the other G-8 countries to fulfill the promises they made in 2005."

Pushing Africans on reforms

Blair has also been instrumental in pushing African governments for political and economic reform in return for debt forgiveness and aid. It was Blair's Africa Commission that popularized the concept of the "grand bargain": That in return for aid and debt relief, African governments will commit to anticorruption measures and good governance – as determined by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This might mean cutting public spending, for instance, or privatizing services such as water or electricity, or liberalizing trade.

Some analysts have pointed out where Blair didn't stop on his tour. He didn't go to Ethiopia, for instance, whose government was an outspoken Blair ally but is now tarnished by accusations of human rights violations. Nor did he go to Uganda, once considered a Western darling but whose president two years ago changed the Constitution in a way that let him stay in power for a third term.

Even in Sierra Leone, where Blair received a hero's welcome this week, there is no clear success story. Although British troops are credited with helping end the West African nation's civil war in 2000, the country is still crippled by corruption and poverty: It is No. 142 out of 163 countries ranked by Transparency International's corruption perception index and is one of the poorest countries in the world.

South Africa presents a rosier picture: A country that, in the 13 years since the end of apartheid, has boomed economically and now has more than $50 billion in bilateral trade relations with Britain.

But even here there are tensions. President Thabo Mbeki has bristled at what he sees as Blair's and Europe's lasting colonial attitude.

Earlier this year, Mr. Mbeki accused Blair of double standards on corruption.

"I don't think Blair is simply going to come to say a goodbye and tell Mbeki about what a great friend he's been," says Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst with the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "They're going to talk about Zimbabwe."

The issue of Zimbabwe has been a point of contention between G-8 nations and African leaders, with many human rights advocates criticizing Mbeki for not taking a stronger stance against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Mr. Mugabe, they believe, is guilty of an increase in human rights violations there.

Tristan McConnell contributed to this report from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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