Socialist Worker

Do they care about Africa?

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 1933

THE BBC traditionally fills the time between Christmas and the new year with programmes reviewing the state of world politics. There was one on Radio Four on New Year’s Day by leading BBC journalists.

Much of it focused on the triangle that dominates British global policy—the US, the European Union (EU), and the Middle East. But one of the BBC’s Africa correspondents was also included.

This was odd—Africa isn’t usually deemed worthy of discussion by the BBC’s big beasts. The solution to this puzzle is simple. There will be a general election this year, probably in May. The main prong of New Labour’s campaign is security—the “war on terrorism” plus law and order. Hence David Blunkett’s disappearance in a cloud of belligerent self-pity just before Christmas was a severe blow for Tony Blair.

But Blair isn’t completely ignoring his left flank. He plans to use the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to project himself as the saviour of Africa. He wants to be seen as the world leader who doesn’t just fight “terrorism” in Iraq but seeks to address its causes in poverty and oppression.

We are consequently seeing the start of a massive government-orchestrated media campaign. That’s why the BBC has suddenly remembered Africa.

Playing up Africa is one issue on which Blair and Gordon Brown agree. Indeed, the rivalry between the dysfunctional duo at the top of New Labour may focus this year on which of them is the real saviour of Africa.

Last week the Financial Times carried two reports on Africa and the G8 on successive days. The first was about the delivery of a petition by Make Poverty History to 10 Downing Street, and the second about Brown’s tour of Africa.

Make Poverty History is a coalition of major non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that is seeking to use the G8 summit to put pressure on the leading powers seriously to address the plight of the global poor. It has called a mass demonstration in Edinburgh during the summit.

But Make Poverty History isn’t exactly getting tough with the government. This is symbolised by the fact that its celebrity front man, Bono, spoke on the platform of the Labour Party conference, lavishing praise on Blair and Brown.

Both politicians are carefully cultivating the mainstream NGOs. Brown made a major speech hosted by Cafod, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, last month. Justin Forsyth, head of policy at Oxfam, has been appointed as Blair’s special adviser on international development.

This courtship reflects the complex relationship between the NGOs and the government. Often seen as part of “civil society” autonomous of the state, the big NGOs are in fact heavily dependent on government funding.

But at the same time they seek to put pressure on the state to take on global poverty. Oxfam, for example, makes many excellent demands such as for the cancellation of Third World debt and for more generous aid programmes.

But it now also supports trade liberalisation, pointing to the scandalous subsidies that, for example, the US and the EU give their farmers. But, as campaigners such as Walden Bello point out, the “level playing field” created by free trade would simply make it easier for the multinationals of the North to dominate producers and markets in the South.The NGOs run the risk therefore of playing into the hands of Blair and Brown.

They can give credibility to New Labour’s neo-liberal economic agenda, and help a government discredited by the war in Iraq rebuild a progressive image. Africa, global poverty, and the G8 are likely to be a major theme in domestic British politics this year. The radical left, which has succeeded in mounting a powerful challenge to Blair on Iraq, needs to make its voice heard in this debate as well.

And we need to be in Scotland in July. The Financial Times reports,“a mammoth security operation, estimated to cost £150 million, is planned ahead of the Gleneagles summit” because of fears of protests on the scale of Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001. Let’s help make these fears a reality.

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Sat 8 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1933
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