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Mr Grumpy can now be found posting at

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Robert Mugabe, world-beater

Who would have imagined, when Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, that it would win the melancholy distinction of becoming the country with the world’s shortest life expectancy? Yes, Comrade Bob has managed to outdo even Sierra Leone. I don’t suppose for a moment that the people who assure us they know how to Make Poverty History will have much to say about this almost entirely home-made African tragedy – apart from demanding that the rest of the world picks up the tab.

In contrast, neighbouring Mozambique seems to be sub-Saharan Africa’s big success story at the moment. This, too, is not likely to be of great interest to the MPHers, since the secret of the country’s success is the embrace of the free market by its one-time Marxist rulers. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. Growth is running at an impressive 8%, but corruption remains rampant, the state is dependent on aid for half of its budget, and only the southernmost corner of the country, where the capital Maputo is located, is really feeling the benefits of the boom. Even so, where Africa is concerned a readiness to be grateful for small mercies is mandatory. [facts from a recent article in the print edition of the Berlin Tagesspiegel]

Why so cynical about Making Poverty History, Grumpy? For a start, it’s the simplistic programme that’s presented as a panacea for Africa’s ills. It’s the feeling that for the big aid charities the whole thing is basically a marketing campaign. It’s the way it gives aging rock stars and sundry other oversized egos the opportunity to proclaim ‘what a wonderful world this would be if only everybody was as caring as me’. It’s the bullying insinuation that anyone who dares disagree with the programme is pro-poverty. It’s the way Africa and its tragedies are turned into the arena for a Manichaean battle between good and evil in which the participants on both sides are rich westerners, whilst the poor buggers who actually live in the continent are turned into passive spectators.

I’m all for free trade. Well, now you mention it, I’m not thrilled about my best client offshoring work to Sri Lanka. But so long as it’s a question of letting in cheap food from Africa I’m delighted as a non-farmer to be able to occupy the moral high ground at no cost to myself whatsoever. But free trade won’t work magic.

Why not? If Europe and America were to stop protecting their farmers, African farmers could undercut them simply because their labour is dirt cheap. And then what? Three scenarios:-

  1. Their labour stays dirt cheap, ergo they stay poor.

  2. Labour costs increase and the competitive advantage conferred by cheap labour disappears. Farmers can’t export their produce, ergo they stay poor.

  3. African countries build on their export successes to invest in things that will consolidate their competitive advantage and start moving away from reliance on cheap labour. People have a chance to start getting less poor.
Scenario 3 depends on a whole lot of things which the rest of the world can’t ultimately control and, on the assumption that colonialism is a Bad Thing, shouldn’t try to. It raises issues about whether aid may turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help. And it’s absolutely not a process which anyone can take for granted given the track record of African elites since decolonization. In Mozambique there is, one hopes, a chance of it working. But if Robert Mugabe is running the show, the script goes into reverse. You start with a flourishing agricultural sector, which thanks to the farmers’ efficiency and enterprise has no difficulty in exporting its produce, and systematically wreck it for reasons of ideology and racial spite. You give land to people who aren’t interested in working it, and you end up not even being able to feed your own people.

Or consider the Ivory Coast, once the economic powerhouse of French-speaking West Africa, now pauperized by civil strife.

So, you ask, what are you going to do about it, Grumpy? My programme is modest at present, I must admit. I plan to carry on drinking fairly traded Tanzanian tea. I'll also continue listening to African music, which needs absolutely no PC special pleading. I'll back political initiatives that are tailored to the realities on the ground rather than to my own desire to enjoy a nice warm glow of self-righteousness. And, pathetic as it may sound to some, I'll try to keep remembering the peoples of Africa in my prayers.

[PS Since writing this, I've read this from Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, putting Mozambique's achievements in an even more sobering perspective.]

[PPS And Bob Geldof, no less, has been saying much the same thing - of course in rather more colourful language.]

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