Britain and Africa: The new propaganda

A major feature of the invasion of Iraq was media commentators falling for obvious government propaganda. Without such complicity, the invasion would have been politically impossible. Yet this willful self-deception is now being repeated in another area, where government propaganda is approaching the same depths as on Iraq. The current Big Lie is that 2005 is to be the Year of Africa.

We are now meant to believe that Blair’s hosting the G8 summit and presidency of the EU in July presents a giant opportunity for progress on eradicating African poverty. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, for example, writes that “the new year is for optimism” since “both Blair and Brown look to 2005 as Britain’s big chance at the helm of the G8 to engage the rich with debt relief, aid, fair trade, carbon emissions and AIDS-crippled Africa”. “On debt and trade”, she adds, “Labour has done well”.

The Independent writes that Africa is “a major issue for Mr Blair who has set up a Commission for Africa, including Bob Geldof, to alleviate poverty”. We are now routinely informed that Blair is “serious” about African poverty.

Yet even a cursory look at British policies is enough to ridicule this notion. The media praise lavished on Blair and Brown for increases in aid and debt relief has been unaccompanied by mentioning the awkward fact that poor countries only get such increases when they agree to pursue economic policies “advised” by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This invariably involves privatisating companies and opening up their economies further to trade “liberalisation”. The effect has regularly been to increase poverty and inequality, and to make the world safer for corporations.

Blair’s Africa Commission is an obvious grandstanding gesture to grab international attention which is unlikely to produce new initiatives. While Blair claims to be listening to Africa, his government has for the last decade been opposing at the World Trade Organisation African proposals to pursue alternative trade policies. Stopping selling arms to Africa might also just help the continent, but this – naturally – is completely off the radar screen. As is any notion of regulating transnational corporations.

New Labour’s big aim is to establish a market-fundamentalist global economic order, clearly outlined in ministers speeches but unmentioned in mainstream media articles.

“We want to open up protected markets in developing countries” is how Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt has put it. Or consider Clare Short’s extraordinary speech to business leaders in April 1999, which set the basis for policy. Calling for partnership with business, she noted that “the assumption that our moral duties and business interests are in conflict is now demonstrably false”. The major point was that “we bring access to other governments and influence in the multilateral system – such as the World Bank and IMF”. She added: “You are well aware of the constraints business faces in the regulatory environment for investment in any country… Your ideas on overcoming these constraints can be invaluable when we develop our country strategies… We can use this understanding to inform our dialogue with governments and the multilateral institutions on the reform agenda”.

So the Department for International Development has been offering itself as an instrument to shape policies in the interests of business.

This strategy is consistent with past economic goals revealed in the declassified files. Creating favourable investment climates is key. A 1968 Foreign Office report notes that “we should bend our energies to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper”. The key to this is “freer” global trade and “increasing our efforts to open up new markets in Europe, Latin America and the Far East”.

The files show that policies to address Third World poverty are to be opposed except where they enhance British business interests. The Foreign Office noted in 1968 that “we should for the time being adopt a ‘heads down’ attitude in regard to proposals which, however, desirable in themselves, would throw a significantly greater strain upon our balance of payments, eg commodity schemes directed primarily to raise prices rather than at stability of markets”.

Britain’s aid programme was seen as “a weapon in the armoury of foreign policy”, according to the Foreign Office in 1958. Ten years later, it stated that “we must ensure that our aid programme supports not only the developmental needs of recipient countries but also our own commercial and foreign policies… Wherever possible we should try to shape our aid programme to fit more appropriately the pattern of our trade and investment interests in different countries”.

Britain’s “leadership” role in 2005 presents more of a threat than an opportunity. Campaigners need to rise to this challenge, expose government policy and highlight African alternatives.

Mark Curtis is Director of the World Development Movement and author of Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses (Vintage, 2004);;  

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