Was 2005 the year of Africa?

What a difference a year makes…

2005 was billed as the year of Africa. It saw a host of launches, concerts, demos and conferences. Critics say not much has changed, but argues Paul Vallely, for 12,000 people a day, poverty really will become history.

So, after all that, did we make poverty history in 2005? Hollow laughter all round, you might suggest, especially after the bum note on which the year ended – with the world trade talks in Hong Kong that even the most optimistic of politicians was forced to describe as ‘disappointing’. What was produced, then, by the year in which Africa was higher up the political agenda than for decades?

2005 was billed as the Year of Africa. First came the report of Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa. Then the UK simultaneously took on the presidency of both the European Union and the G8 group of the world’s eight most powerful nations. Next came the G8 meeting at Gleneagles, a UN summit that was to put global poverty at its heart, and finally the world trade talks in Hong Kong. Pressing on all of these has been perhaps the most sustained global campaign ever, known in the UK as Make Poverty History, which culminated in Live 8 – possibly the biggest political lobby the world has ever seen.

It was a roller-coaster ride. The Africa Commission set the policy and campaigning template for the year, and became the intellectual underpinning of Live 8 and then the blueprint for the Gleneagles deal. The Commission’s report was far more radical than campaigners could have hoped for. Indeed it surprised the African majority on the Commission, and Bob Geldof too – he and I drew up a checklist before we began work on the Commission and got through far more than we had expected at the outset.

The report called for four historic things. One, a doubling – and later a possible quadrupling – of the amount of aid the world gives each year. Two, a major new deal on debt which acknowledged, for the first time, an important point of principle – that multilateral agencies like the IMF share with debtor and lender governments a collective responsibility for the debt problem. Three, an end to the rich world’s practice of using deals on aid, debt and trade to change developing countries’ economic policies to benefit Western multinationals – no forced liberalisation. That broke new ground. And four, a date to end rich nations’ trade-distorting farm subsidies – which means more than just an end to export subsidies, as Hong Kong agreed. It necessitates a radical revision of the way the EU, US and Japan subsidise their agri-business.

But when the Commission report was published in March, though widely praised, it did not make the splash which Geldof and its other members had hoped.

It was when it became clear that the report was largely being ignored in the pre-Gleneagles ‘sherpa’ negotiations that Geldof decided to do Live 8 – “something so big the politicians would be forced to take notice,” as he put it.

It worked before a note was played. Geldof let Tony Blair, and the other leaders, know of his plan some time before it was publicly announced. Almost at once things started to move within the sherpa meetings. At the end of May, Europe agreed to double its aid by 2010 – with 15 countries promising that by 2015 they would give 0.7 per cent of their national income in aid. Then in June the G7 finance ministers agreed to cancel 100 per cent of the debts owed to multilateral bodies like the IMF; 18 countries would benefit initially, rising to 38 countries later.

The summit at Gleneagles set the seal on all that, and promised to implement 50 of the Africa Commission’s 90 recommendations. It doubled annual levels of aid. It endorsed the debt deal to write off the debts owed to the IMF, World Bank, and African Development Bank to those 56 poorest countries. It conceded, for the first time, that rich nations must not use aid, debt or trade deals to force African economies to liberalise. And it called for a timetable to end rich countries’ trade-distorting agricultural subsidies.

Most observers, including Kofi Annan and his economic adviser Professor Jeffrey Sachs, hailed this as a major breakthrough. But many aid agencies were surprisingly churlish, complaining that the debt deal was insufficient or that the aid was double-counted, though the bald fact is that the amount paid out in 2010 will be double what it was in 2004. One lobby group, locked in confrontational mode, went so far as to call the Gleneagles deal “a disaster for the world’s poor”.

Of course, more could have been done. But what was promised was historic. It was a deal which no-one with any understanding of how real change is effected in the world could have imagined a year earlier.

But the politically maladroit reaction of agencies – who should have had the acumen to say “Well done” before saying what else was needed – created a fatalistic cynicism among Live 8 and Make Poverty History activists who felt, wrongly, that their efforts had been in vain. More importantly, it contributed to the loss of political momentum for Africa created by other dramatic world events, bombs in London, hurricanes in America, elections in Germany and urgent domestic matters in the UK.

September brought the UN Summit. It was supposed to focus on the world’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals to halve world poverty by 2015. But it got diverted into debates about UN reform, in which the US seemed most concerned about settling old scores over the UN’s lack of enthusiasm for its war in Iraq. The summit did some good things. It reversed the old convention that one state could not intervene in the affairs of another – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity are all now legitimate grounds for intervention. It also set up a new Peacebuilding Commission to do more on conflict-prevention and to make post-conflict aid work more effective. It established a more effective Human Rights Council, with double the old budget. It set up a $150 million standing fund to respond to crises like Niger. And 66 countries committed themselves to international levies – including environmentally-friendly taxes on air travel – to boost aid flows.

But on the big issue of reviving the world’s flagging progress towards the Millennium Development Goals it was a huge disappointment.

Even so, the cynics who suggested that the IMF and World Bank would not back the Gleneagles deal were proved wrong later that month, as non-G8 rich nations came on board. And various international meetings began to put flesh on the Gleneagles deal – with $3.7 billion allocated to the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, a $4 billion immunisation fund being launched, and work starting on the detail of how to double spending on basic education, especially for girls.

But trade was the disappointment of 2005. The Doha round of world trade talks was supposed to be designed to be a ‘development’ round. But the final deal did not live up to the fine words on trade from the G8 leaders at Gleneagles. A date of 2013 was fixed for an end to agricultural export subsidies. Some flexibility was given to poor nations to protect their small farmers from outside competition. There was some progress on preventing the abuse of food aid as a disguised form of dumping, and a few nominal concessions on cotton. But the idea of more aid to help Africa develop its capacity to trade has not been backed with much money. And on the key issue of other trade-distorting subsidies – 95 per cent of the total – the meeting ran away from making a decision.

At least, defenders said, the trade talks live to fight another day. But what is needed is not more time but a different attitude. Nothing will happen if it is left to the usual negotiators with the usual brief. Presidents Bush and Chirac, and Prime Minister Blair, need to get involved themselves and bang some heads together if the slogan “justice not charity” is to become real. For aid and debt deals, however grand, are in the end merely forms of charity when compared with the need for us to change the way we do business with the Developing World to make it more fair. A one per cent increase in trade will benefit Africa more than a fivefold increase in aid and debt relief.

So what does it all add up to? If the Gleneagles promises are kept to – and activists must campaign to make the politicians keep the promises they signed at Gleneagles – then, of the 50,000 people who die preventably every day somewhere in the world, 12,000 will be saved. Some 600,000 African children who would have died from malaria will live. Six million Africans will get anti-Aids drugs within the next five years. Polio should be eradicated. Twenty million more children will go to school. Five million more orphans will be cared for.

So did we make poverty history? Not exactly. But 12,000 people a day saved is a massive step in the right direction. The challenge in 2006 is to do the same for the other 37,000 people who today, and every day, will die, needlessly, from entirely preventable causes.