How African aid can be the new imperialism
How African aid can be the new imperialism
TWO men wanting to change the world met in the White
House yesterday. They discussed their agendas, and did
not quite agree. But this was always going to be the
case when there are conflicting visions of a global
The "imperialist" charge against George W Bush is
clear: his plans to spread democracy around the world
amount to an American empire in all but name. He is
intent on exporting American political values to the
furthest corners of the globe.
Tony Blair has avoided similar charges - yet the
agenda for Africa that he will bring before the G8
leaders is no less ambitious. Like America, Britain
also believes it has a moral duty to change the world
- and is about to embark on a mission to do so.
The idea of the new American empire has been
powerfully explained by Niall Ferguson, the
Glasgow-born historian. Washington, he argues, is the
new Rome as it maintains a new global world order, at
But while America is playing the role of policeman for
the free world, Britain is angling for the role as the
conscience of the West.
Unlike America, Britain has been here before. Our
empire started off as a device for exploration and
plunder, expropriating the natural resources of
colonies and growing rich quick. But midway through
the 19th century, things changed dramatically. The
role of the British empire then became to establish
the rule of law and better the lives of its subjects.
It was not enough for Britain to rule the world: it
wanted to redeem it - through civilisation, law and
One main political export was the form of government.
Britain believed it had perfected parliamentary
democracy, and knew how to build roads and civilise
nations. Missionaries and civil engineers were the
foot-soldiers of this new empire.
History has swung full circle. Britain once again
believes it has the answers for good government: and,
under the auspices of the "world community", will
start improving countries without the need of removing
By far the most important document in the Africa
debate is the report by Tony Blair's Commission for
Africa. Now in bookshops as a paperback, it is a
fact-packed and powerful summary of Britain's new
ambitions for the former colonies.
Parts of it urge caution. Those who ignore African
culture, it warns, are doomed to failure: condoms are
not much use fighting AIDS when the disease can be
spread by ancient initiation-rites, blood-brother
practices and widespread polygamy.
But other parts read like a Labour manifesto for the
planet. It is laden in five- and ten-year plans,
focused on schools and hospitals, and constantly
judges success in terms of spending targets. Its
recommendations are eerily recognisable.
No school class size should be above 40. Health
spending should be at least 15 per cent of the
government budget. Africa must double the area of
arable land under irrigation by 2015. Where Victorians
once brought Bibles, Britain now brings targets. Just
as Britain covered India in railways, so should Africa
have its new infrastructure. There should be "no
prestige projects" (we have, it seems, learnt from the
Millennium Dome), but instead, "irrigation of small
plots of land".
Africa should also adopt the Private Finance
Initiative (PFI): all major projects should be "built
and delivered in conjunction with the private sector".
Means-testing should be introduced, to ensure free
healthcare for the poorest.
Just as England has city academies, so will Africa
have specialist schools. There should be £1.6 billion
over ten years to "develop centres of excellence in
science and technology, including African institutes
There is not a God - but there is the western gospel
of gender equality. Africans should do something about
the "routine exclusion of women" from "decision-making
bodies". To sell this to Africa's tribesmen would
require a cultural revolution.
We are not talking about simply debt relief, nor a few
more food projects. This is the agenda for Britain's
new, benign colonialism - an ambitious blueprint
stamped with Gordon Brown's assumptions and methods.
President Bush is more concerned with good governance
- arguing that political stability brings its own
harvest. Emphasis on central planning, and spending a
certain amount of cash by a certain deadline, is a
Hence the split on Africa. Contrary to the caricature,
President Bush is not simply refusing to pay up -
indeed, he has pledged more to fight AIDS in Africa
than the rest of the G8 countries put together.
Britain's agenda for Africa simply clashes with
The Commission for Africa report would not look out of
place in the Foreign and Colonial Office of 1870.
Indeed, it has many parallels with America's plan for
postwar reconstruction in Iraq. All are projecting a
form of empire.
Then and now, morality is a common theme. The
crusading zeal of the Victorians is more than echoed
by Mr Brown when he speaks about "the moral arc of the
universe". The Africa Commission says "we are in one
CHRISTIANITY is by no means absent this time around.
The Chancellor is, famously, a son of the manse whose
political opinions were formed by his father's sermons
in Kirkcaldy. His most powerful speeches all have
something of the pulpit about them. And, of course, Mr
Blair is the most religious occupant of 10 Downing
Street since Gladstone. This is a man who takes his
Bible with him on overseas trips: he and his
Chancellor are united in seeing in Africa a moral
British churches are firmly backing the Make Poverty
History campaign, whose literature is stacked in
church halls across Britain. It is a campaign our
Victorian forefathers would certainly recognise.
But "empire" is now a dirty word. Its political
dimension - exploitation and oppression - has obscured
the fact that it was seen by millions of Victorians as
a moral device for bettering the lives of millions,
physically and spiritually.
Now, it is a mission without the missionaries - but
Victorians would easily recognise their own ideals in
today's crusade to Make Poverty History.
Mr Brown's model is the Marshall Plan, where the US
government injected the equivalent of £50 billion into
a war-torn Europe, helped it rebuild infrastructure
and was rewarded by a staunch Cold War ally.
To Niall Ferguson, the Marshall Plan was a tool of the
new imperialism - because it extended America's power,
assured its values were enacted over a part of the
world to which it had no claim. The same is true for
He has spent seven years calling for a Marshall Plan
for Africa - an idea that has been met with deep
suspicion on the other side of the pond, where it is
argued that decades of aid can be reversed in a stroke
by dictators such as Robert Mugabe.
Mr Brown is no less ambitious than Mr Bush. The
pivotal difference is that America has the budget to
rule the waves: Britain does not. This is why Britain
needs global alliances, while America does not. But
Gordon Brown has a cunning plan.
His International Finance Facility would deliver an
empire-sized budget long after the days of empire have
passed. It is, in effect, a £60 billion mortgage to
fund the Africa mission - a 30-year loan, borrowing
from future governments.
Mr Bush is often told that he runs the world like an
American empire, and should admit as much. Britain is
about to embark on another extraordinary mission, not
seen since our own imperial heyday. Such ambition
deserves to be called by its name.