BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 03.02.02

Film: AFRICA Film%3A Tony Blair travels to west Africa this week as part of his plans to create a new partnership between Africa and the West. But can he really make much of a difference?

PAUL WILENIUS: Globetrotting. Saving the world. It's all part of the job for Tony Blair. Leave the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw back at home. And those nasty domestic troubles. Clock up some more Blair-miles. The only worry is making sure to take the right outfits. Tony Blair is about to fly off on another foreign crusade - this time to Africa. His mission is to bring an end to poverty, war and bad government in this troubled continent. But his critics warn that if he's to succeed, it'll take a lot more money and commitment from Britain and the developed world than they've so far been willing to give. TONY BLAIR: The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it. And if we don't that scar will become deeper and angrier still. WILENIUS: So this African adventure is personal. Almost a journey into the Prime Minister's own heart of darkness. He says he really wants to make a difference, to what some call the forgotten continent. But the question is whether or not his brief visit is the beginning of a long haul. DR DALEEP MUKARJI: What Blair said at the Labour party conference was exciting, it was visionary, it had a moral dimension to it and we were all excited. But he is going to soon realize there is no quick fixes it is going to take a long time and this is where we hope that himself and his government working with others are willing to go the long journey with partners in Africa. WILENIUS: Since September 11 and the attacks on the World Trade Center, Tony Blair has carved out a new role for himself as a world leader. He's been flying all over the globe as part of the battle against terrorism. He's visited more than twenty countries in a few months. But he's been attacked for acting as little more than President George W Bush's cheerleader and for spending too much time abroad. TONY BALDRY MP: If I were the Prime Minister I'd be concerned about criticism of Blair miles and a sense that he seems to be happier overseas than he is at home. WILENIUS: Tony Blair is hoping to escape the criticism during his stay in West Africa. He's expected to take in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. And he's even poised to fly into Sierra Leone, to visit British forces there. But there are real worries that he may find it hard to live up to his own grand ambition. OONA KING MP: I don't think its possible to underestimate the difficulty of the problems facing Africa when you look at the levels of corruption and the levels of conflict, the levels of poverty, the AIDS pandemic, it's you know, those problems are not going to be solved by one man in one trip. WILENIUS: Money must be at the centre of any crusade to help Africa. The continent's poorest nations should be able to earn more by trade with the developed world. While Britain and other richer nations are under increasing pressure to give more aid, to wipe out debt and also help with sustainable development. The desperate need for more aid is clear in Sub-Saharan Africa, where almost half of the population, 301 million people, have to live on less than seventy pence a day. Together with this abject poverty, people in this part of Africa are dying younger, with life expectancy declining from fifty years in 1993 to only forty-seven in 1999. One of the main reasons for this that at least seventeen-million people in the area have died of AIDS and a further twenty-five million are living with HIV or AIDS. HON LT GEN MOMPATI MERAFHE: Sometimes the arrogant display of opulence that you find in the developed world when you try and compare it with the situation in which in some parts of the world people find themselves, particularly in some parts of Africa, you just feel that, you know, we live in this world and some people live elsewhere and that you know there is so much unequal distribution of wealth. WILENIUS: Despite Tony Blair's promises to reduce that inequality, he's hardly leading by example. Britain has signed up to the United Nations target to give point seven per cent of its national income in aid to developing countries. But it's still spending less than half of that amount. And on the government's current plans it'll take many years to reach that target. KING: My target would be reaching point seven per cent of GDP within the lifetime of this parliament and then within the next parliament were there to be and I obviously hope there will be a third term of the Labour government, to increase that to one per cent because post September 11th we've seen that we don't live in a divided world and we will reap the consequences unless we prevent some of these huge inequalities. WILENIUS: Another huge problem is the sheer scale of the debt crushing many countries. Every day, sub-Saharan Africa pays out twenty-seven-point-three-million pounds merely to cover the cost of debt. Ten countries in Africa spend more on debt than on health and primary education combined. BARRY COATES: The big promises of, of, of debt relief haven't been delivered. So that if you take the, the fifty-two poorest countries in the world that are heavily indebted and you look at how much debt they have it's about three hundred-and-fifty billion. How much has actually been written off in terms of, of debt is about twenty billion out of that three-hundred-and-fifty. WILENIUS: Gordon Brown and Clare Short have been leading the efforts to try to cut Africa's debt, but there are criticisms that this has been undermined by British exports which don't help sustainable development. JENNY TONGE MP: We've had a very good example recently of Gordon Brown relieving the debt last year of Tanzania which was a very good thing to do, wiped it our completely. Less than a year later the Department of Trade and Industry sells this air traffic control system to the same country for twenty-eight million pounds, huge cost, throws them back into debt again and that amount of money would actually pay for basic health care for the whole of the population of that country. Now what is the prime minister doing if he approves something like that? It is totally hypocritical. WILENIUS: Indeed trade is at the heart of the problem. Tony Blair will be banging the drum for British industry during his trip to West Africa. But there are accusations that Britain and other rich countries are restricting fairer trade rules which would give developing countries access to their markets and stop exploitation by multi-national companies. DR MUKARJI: It's very important for the west and the EU countries in particular but also working through the G8 that we open up our markets and we allow a much fairer trade system. Now this is going to give African leaders and African governments a sense of dignity and independence because aid alone is not going to make a difference. WILENIUS: Britain's jet setting Prime Minister has promised to heal the scars of Africa. But bloody conflicts and wars, which have claimed the lives of millions, are still raging across the continent. And so Tony Blair will find it difficult to get rid of those scars, while the killing and maiming goes on. Britain played a significant role in bringing to an end the terrible slaughter caused by this civil war in Sierra Leone. But it's not clear if Tony Blair is prepared to expand Britain's armed forces to help solve other conflicts. In Somalia direct American intervention was a disaster, and on Zimbabwe British policy is failing. And many African leaders are no longer willing to take lectures from their old colonial masters. DR MUKARJI: When Tony Blair goes to Africa he must be prepared to go and listen to the Africans, rather than tell the Africans what is good and what is bad for them. BADRY: The idea that the West, Europe, can simply march in and resolve conflicts for everyone in Africa I think, you know, the evidence of what happened in Somalia and elsewhere doesn't bode particularly well for that. WILENIUS: In the Democratic Republic of Congo a staggering three million people have lost their lives through war or famine, with rival African states joining the battle for diamonds, money and influence. It's left the country in ruins. But rather than tackling Africa's bloody conflicts the west has been feeding them, sending millions of pounds worth of military hardware and expertise into the continent every year. KING: I think nowhere is the contradiction more clear in development and trade policy than in the arm, in the area of arms, and you can see it when British soldiers have British arms turned against them in wars. TONGE: We really have got to tighten up where we sell our arms to, because in the end its not in our interests even because we have to go and clean up the mess, we have to spend money on redeveloping a country as we're doing in Afghanistan now. So conflict prevention before anything starts is a much more sensible policy to pursue and that includes controlling the arms trade. WILENIUS: Tony Blair's beginning to realise that he can't change things in Africa on his own. Last week's attempt to force the Commonwealth to take tougher action against Zimbabwe's President Mugabe was rebuffed. Now he's coming under mounting pressure to use his special relationship with President Bush to try to force the Americans to put far more aid and commitment into Africa. COATES: There's a, a, I think a pivotal opportunity now where if Blair does use his influence then, then the US policy can shift on many of these areas. But first it would be very good if the UK itself showed leadership through its own policies. WILENIUS: After his West African trip Tony Blair will be hurled straight back into difficult domestic issues. But he'll have to have more than a nice suntan to show for his overseas efforts. There need to be real improvements to aid, trade and peace in Africa, otherwise he'll continue to be dogged by the grand promises of his conference speech. TONGE: Well I hope it comes back to haunt him, I'm going to make jolly sure it comes back to haunt him on a very regular basis because he's said these things very, very publicly, I accept and hope very much that he was sincere about it and I think we should remind him of those words very, very often indeed during the course of this parliament. BALDRY: What we're going to see is a number of photo opportunities in Africa, a few sound bytes, a statement back in the House of Commons when he gets back but actually in terms of real proposals or real achievements, very little being done. WILENIUS: Back from his travels and returning to rain-swept Westminster Tony Blair could once again run into criticism for raising expectations which he can't then deliver. Because a few good holiday snaps may not be enough to persuade his critics that he is starting to pull Africa out of the darkness.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.