At the Royal Geographical Society, this weekday evening, the large hall is packed. On the stage decorated with flowers and the Evening Standard logo, a PowerPoint display shows the topic for this evening’s debate – The Best Way to help Africa is to Leave it Alone. It is a controversial topic for obvious reasons and the crowd is an interesting mixture of races and political creeds. The event is the fortnightly debate organized by intelligence2, an organization committed to providing a forum for public debate on topical issues. One of the founders, John Gordon, an experienced and wealthy media practitioner mounts the stage to welcome the audience and to introduce the chairman for the evening, Nik Gowing, whose role it will be to moderate the debate. Gordon reveals that this has been the most popular of the debates so far, with tickets sold out a week to the event and with three hundred people on the waiting list. To propose the motion are Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the Oxford educated, Nigerian born General secretary of the Pan African Movement and Matthew Parris, the former MP and journalist who was born and brought up in different parts of Southern Africa. On the opposing side is Clare Short, maverick Labour MP and former Secretary of State for International Development, Anthony Sampson former editor of Drum magazine, and distinguished author of many seminal books including Mandela: The Authorised Biography and Sir Marrack Goulding, former Ambassador to Angola and current warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. The presence of Ms Short sends a frisson through the audience as she is embroiled in a row with the Government over her allegation the previous day that the intelligence services of the UK and the US had planned to eavesdrop on Kofi Annan’s conversations.
Nik Gowing of the BBC is probably conscious of this and so warns at the beginning that all questions at the debate must focus on the topic for the evening and nothing else. With that he invites Richard Dowden to open the debate for the proposing side. He argues that Africa should be left alone because the history of Western influence and intervention has been on the balance overwhelmingly negative, beginning with the missionaries who wanted to help the “poor, sad and hungry people of Africa” to the aid-industry which followed it. In spite of the billions poured in, there are very few examples of sustainable projects resulting from the aid. He argues that until the West accepts its mistakes and understands why the failures have occurred, it is best off leaving the continent alone, as outsiders cannot save or develop Africa. He continues, arguing that aid distorts the local economies and creates dependent people, adding that the ruler-donor relationship is often stronger than the relationship between many African leaders and the people they ostensibly lead. He points out that contrary to popular belief, most African leaders are neither Mandelas nor Mobutus, but often fall in between. He marvels at the propensity of African leaders to “learn from the hymn sheets handed out by the IMF and other donor organizations”, pointing out how over the years they have learned to bandy phrases like “governance” , “gender balance”, and “human rights” without necessarily buying into the core principles underlying these phrases. Finally, he argues, Africa can save itself, pointing to the 12 billion pounds estimated by the World Bank to have been remitted to Africa by its citizens in the diaspora in 2003. He points out that 1 billion pounds of this amount went to Western Union and other remittance agencies, the same amount budgeted as aid for Africa by the UK this year. On that note, he takes his seat to resounding applause from the audience.
Ms Short takes the stage to open the case for the opposition, arguing that there is something insidious and nasty in the phrase “leave them alone”. She asks whether an individual living through the great human suffering occasioned by the Sierra Leonean civil war would subscribe to the dictum of “leave them alone”. She praises the great dignity and community of Africans in the face of extreme suffering and need and points out that it is in Europe’s (and the West’s) self-interest to stay involved in Africa. As she points out, North Africa is only a few kilometres from Europe and what happens in Africa will impinge on Europe. Going further, she argues that leaving Africa alone means leaving in place the unfair trade practices that have played a role in the impoverishment of Africans. Warming to her theme, she explains that Fair-trade chocolate is made in Europe and that most of the price goes to workers in Europe, with only the cost of the cocoa seed going to African farmers. She accepts that interventions in the past have hurt Africa, citing the slave trade, colonialism and the Cold war as examples and argues that walking away means leaving the consequences of these ill-fated interventions behind. She argues that the West has a moral and historical responsibility to Africa, in addition to the issues of self-interest, she has raised earlier. Pointing to the Sudan, whose High Commissioner is helpfully seated in the front row, she argues that the imminent peace accord there has been achieved largely due to the efforts of the international community, who need to continue to support the peace process to ensure it is sustained. Debunking the argument about aid, she argues that the total GDP of African countries was 360 billion pounds with aid coming to only 13 billion pounds annually. Finally she urges the audience “not to be this cynical” and to vote against the motion and reject the option of supporting the ugly future of catastrophes. As she sits to applause, the only African on the panel, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem takes the podium.
He begins by highlighting his unique role as the only African on the panel, and therefore needing no lessons about Africa and its needs. He acknowledges his respect for the members of the opposing side whom he says, he has great respect for. He also acknowledges the hospitality of Britain in the years he spent in exile, pointing out that he has never claimed a penny in welfare benefits, an obvious dig at the ant-asylum seeker backlash which draws laughter from the audience. He goes on to argue that he supports the motion based on a lifetime of activism against the destructiveness of aid, which he says allows African leaders to ignore their immediate environment because of friends in Britain, Paris and New York. He laments that it is this situation that allows Tony Blair, an individual suffering from no credibility with his own country men and women to launch a Commission for Africa. He adds, that for him, Africa is not a hobby, but his reality, mocking those who say “you know what, I’m really into Africa these days”. As the audience guffaws, he argues that Africans must be able to decide what help they need from their friends, on their own terms. He refers to the Great Lakes region where he argues, there is never money for schools or hospitals, but always enough money for wars. He asks the audience to resoundingly support the motion and sits, barely meeting the time limit allocated to him.
The next speaker is Sir Marrack Goulding, Master of St Antony’s at Oxford who summarizes the reasons why the West must stay engaged in Africa as guilt, ethics and self-interest. He further divides the reasons for self-interest into the possibility of losing markets, the potential raw materials that would be cut off and the stream of immigration that would be lost. He argues that the West needs to support Education in Africa, sub regional cooperation and economic development in a way that is acceptable to Africans. On what the West must not do, he says that unfair trade practices should not be tolerated, Western economic and political models must not be imposed and economic development must not be undermined through the offering of bribes, drawing on his experience in Angola. His final point is that the application of double standards must be avoided, contrasting the West’s response to the genocide in Rwanda to the response to Kosovo.
Matthew Parris, diffidently takes the podium, the final speaker for the proposers. He distances himself from the benign non-intervention stance of his partner, Richard Dowden and the humorous scepticism of his other team-mate, Tajudeen. He highlights Dowden’s comments about “hard-hearted right-wing cynics” and places himself in that camp. This he says is because outcomes from Africa have been consistently disappointing, arguing that aid has worked elsewhere but not in Africa. He does not presume to know why, but argues that aid should only be sent where it will help. He laments that African electorates have not yet learnt that swagger is not a mark of good leadership and argues that foreign aid only serves to soften the blows the hapless electorates receive from their leaders. Drawing from his personal experience, he marvels at how poorer Africans are often kind, honest and generous, but adds that as you move up the social ladder in many African countries, you meet more with greed, boastfulness and arrogance. He refers to Nigeria as a “squalid, failed state with wrong priorities” and concludes that while he hopes he is wrong, he is intensely pessimistic about the results of further engagement in Africa.
Antony Sampson takes the stage and asks the question “What do we mean by leaving Africa alone?” He likens the proposition to raiding a shop, stripping it bare of goods and then saying to the shopkeeper, we leave it to you. He argues that many of the traits the West deplore in African leaders have been learned from Westerners, arguing that Mugabe learnt to defy the world from Ian Smith and that Mobutu learnt imperial tastes and propensities from King Leopold.
We cannot leave Africa alone, he adds because Africa is already here with us, citing recent census figures which show that Black Africans have outstripped Caribbeans in the London area. He also emphasizes the number of Africans engaged in British hospitals, schools and transport system, adding that the security of the West depends on a peaceful and viable Africa.
What he says is needed is a reform of the global marketplace to ensure fairness, arguing that the global marketplace is now a casino with loaded dice. Corruption spread by big Western businesses as they strive to out-bribe competitors must be tackled and concludes that Britain needs the continued stimulus of engagement abroad to keep it thriving. He serves a warning to Sir Bob Geldof, who is seating in the audience, advising him, not to concentrate on the economic side of African development, but to engage with the common African people, the human beings whom aid initiatives have often ignored.
As Antony Sampson takes his seat, the Chairman announces the results from the pre-debate poll and says that while voting is going on, contributions from the floor are welcome. The pre-debate polls show 169 in favour of the motion,271 against and 283 undecided.
The first speaker from the floor argues that after over fifty years, it is time for the West to stop feeling guilty about Africa. The next speaker, a former Sierra Leonean MP argues that the proposition is flawed and decries an approach that emphasizes aid as opposed to structures and processes. A Nigerian, Yemi Johnson takes the microphone to argue that what Africa needs is equal access to the world’s markets and not aid arguing that adequate talent and resources abound in Africa. He takes exception to Matthew Parris’ characterization of Nigeria as a failed state arguing that there are vibrant developments in Nigeria’s economic sector to put the lie to that proposition. There are many more contributions in the same vein, with Chidi Odinkalu asking Ms Short exactly how many indigenous consultants the Department for International Development used during her time as Secretary of State. A Sudanese woman, a teacher speaks of how she was able to set up a school with support from aid organizations and argues that she was allowed a free hand in deciding how to utilize the aid and urges the audience to reject the motion. A young white English boy in his teens argues that as English men and women, it is repulsive to watch Hutus slaying Tutsis on television and attacks Tajudeen for proposing from his privileged Oxford background that the West should hands off Africa, something which draws sustained applause. In response, Tajudeen asks the young man to go back and study his history books, because as he says “I am here because the British were first there” Humorously he adds, the sun never set on the British Empire because God did not trust the British in the dark. He laments that in parts of Africa today, politicians now campaign saying “If you elect me I will bring Oxfam and Action Aid instead of outlining what their plans for their constituents are”. He marvels at how governments sustained by non-governmental organizations are being created, adding that NGOs are now a multimillion pound business, with African NGOs learning fast from their Western counterparts. With a few more contributions from the audience on either side, including one from a researcher at Imperial College highlighting the health benefits from Western involvement in Africa, it is time for the results.
The chairman announces that the proposition has been defeated with 359 votes from those opposing the motion to 359 votes from those supporting it. As the crowd dissipates, someone behind me points out that MS Short never answered Chidi Odinkalu’s question. As we make our way out, we are offered programmes for forthcoming debates and are encouraged to mail in with suggested topics for future debates.