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Old 06-15-2004, 12:48 PM   #1
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(06-15-2004) Expect Little New for Africa -- allAfrica.com

Expect Little New for Africa

Bryan Rostron

ONE month ago, in Downing Street, Tony Blair launched prompted by Bob Geldof the Commission for Africa.

The idea is to investigate the causes of Africa's economic torments and report back to the Group of Eight summit in Britain next year.

Africa will be the last thing on Blair's mind right now as he fights to save his job, and who knows if he will still be prime minister when the report is presented. Does it matter?

In 1974, I was reporting in Rome when Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, famously told the United Nation's World Food Conference:

"The profound comment of our era is that for the first time we may have the technical capacity to free mankind from the scourge of hunger. Therefore today we must proclaim a bold objective: that within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will fear for its next day's bread and that no human being's future and capacity will be stunted by malnutrition."

In the 30 years since, what has changed that this new "commission" will reveal? There have been many such reports, going back to the exhaustive Brandt "north-south" commission in 1980. Economic realities have altered little and less been done. The reason? Solutions proposed have been wholly unpalatable to wealthy nations.

A decade after Kissinger's rhetoric in Rome came the terrible famine in Ethiopia, which gained worldwide coverage thanks to harrowing TV exposure and Bob Geldof's Live Aid concert.

By then I was working for the masscirculation Daily Mirror in London, when a friend from Italy rang to say he'd bought a tin of corned beef in a supermarket, and the small print said the meat had been exported from Ethiopia.

Was this a story, he asked, at a time when we were being urged to send charitable donations to feed the starving there? Investigation proved this was indeed the case.

The beef was being canned by a firm in Liverpool. The British company said, yes, this did give them pause for thought, but when you analysed the situation it was actually beneficial for Ethiopians. In return for exporting beef, they reasoned, Ethiopia got desperately needed hard cash to pay off debts.

I contacted Bob Geldof, who said he'd like to discuss this with his "experts". True to his word, he came back with a considered reply, saying while it appeared bizarre, even contradictory, Ethiopia undeniably did need foreign currency to pay off debts.

A senior expert at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation headquarters in Rome gave an equally thoughtful but totally opposing answer. Charity, he said, is no solution: unpayable debts would remain a crippling burden on the country long after the famine was over and TV coverage had evaporated.

My editor agreed this was a front page story. Finally, I rang Oxfam for a quote. Oxfam, horrified, contacted the Mirror's managing editor and convinced him that if the story ran it might dry up the funds that were pouring in for famine relief. Just before deadline, I was told the story had been spiked.

At the time the Daily Mirror and its tabloid rival The Sun were engaged in highly emotive competition for circulation rather than humanitarian motives to raise money for Ethiopia.

The newspaper was not about to put a damper on their readers' genuine outburst of compassion by asking them to think more deeply about global economic injustices, and the role of the rich world in them.

In fact, I took the story to the great campaigning journalist Paul Foot, who had a weekly investigative column in the Daily Mirror and was such a towering and respected writer not even the editor would dare censor him. The story was published with two results: (1) charity to Ethiopia did not dry up, (2) Tony Blair obviously did not read the story, because if after a lifetime in politics he doesn't grasp some of the underlying causes of Africa's woes, he is not about to come up with a new, illuminating answer.

Our Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, alongside Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (and Sir Bob Geldof), will represent Africa on the commission. But whatever truths they tell or solutions they propose (and, frankly, they are unlikely to be too radical or rude with their British host) can they really reveal something new they haven't told us?

A prediction: the Commission for Africa will come up with suggestions that have been proposed again and again. If Blair is still in power, he'll present the report with razzmatazz, then quietly shelve it. If he isn't in power, the result will be the same. Nil.

It is a shocking indictment of the developed world that it is two rock stars, Geldof and Bono of U2, that have been more persistent, more passionate and more effective in arguing Africa's cause than any western politician. But how far can they get?

A year ago Bono accompanied then US treasury secretary Paul 0'Neill on a trip through Africa to assess the continent's debt bondage. The day they landed in Johannesburg, President George Bush announced he was raising the subsidy to US farmers by 62 percent, doling out an extra $190bn to them in the next 10 years. How can the developing world compete or even cope with such cynical double standards and rigged markets?

In truth, to explain all hitherto dustgathering reports, fact-finding missions and commissions, the introduction for this new Blair-Geldof report could cut to the chase and sum up the sorry story so far by simply quoting Tolstoy: "I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means except by getting off his back."

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