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The temptation of Africa

ANYONE WHO HAS seen the film “Amazing Grace” will appreciate the parallels between the career of William Wilberforce, the politician who led the campaign against the slave trade, and that of outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Like Blair, Wilberforce had his roots in the north of England. Like Blair, his Oxbridge years were undistinguished. Like Blair, he lost no time in entering politics, where his affability ensured rapid advancement. And, like Blair, Wilberforce was strongly influenced by the evangelical movement.

The revelation of “the infinite love, that Christ should die to save such a sinner,” came to Wilberforce like a thunderbolt after he had entered Parliament. But he was convinced by (among others) the repentant slave trader John Newton -- the man who composed “Amazing Grace” -- that he could “do both”: politics and God’s work.

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The moral transformation of England achieved by the evangelical movement, without which the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade would never have been passed, has its echoes in our own time. Today, of course, most English people are faintly embarrassed by religion and regard Americans as rather absurd for reading the Bible. Nevertheless, the English retain an authentically 19th century enthusiasm for moral crusades.

In our time, as in the 1800s, Africa has an especially strong appeal to the evangelical sensibility. There is something irresistible about being able to feel simultaneously guilty about the continent’s problems (“I once was blind ... ") and capable of solving them (" ... but now I see”).

The problem is, of course, that generation after generation thinks it has found the solution, and generation after generation is disappointed. Wilberforce and his friends were convinced that abolishing the slave trade, and then slavery itself, would do the trick. Yet the consequences were far less impressive than the reformers had hoped. Most of Africa remained not much better off in 1907 than it had been 1807. So, something else had to be tried, and that something was state-led economic development. No joy.

So we tried again. This time the solution was political independence. Again, disappointment. Economically, the majority of the countries in question did even worse under self-government than they had under British rule.

We tried lending them money. That didn’t work. Then we gave them aid. Many well-meaning people -- led by that most evangelical of economists, Jeffrey Sachs -- continue to have faith in aid as a policy, arguing that it simply needs to be better targeted, for example on the provision of free malaria nets. But economists who know Africa better than Sachs are skeptical.

Oxford University’s Paul Collier, author of “The Bottom Billion,” persuasively argues that Africa’s biggest problems are political. Corrupt tyrannies and endemic civil wars account for a huge proportion of Africa’s economic under-performance since the end of colonial rule.

Just take a look at the excellent new Global Peace Index published last week, which ranks 121 nations according to a wide variety of indicators, such as their levels of military expenditure and their human rights records. Eight out of the bottom 20 countries -- you guessed it -- are in Africa.

Plainly, lavishing debt forgiveness and aid on rogue regimes such as Zimbabwe’s or Sudan’s, or on failed states such as Ivory Coast, is as big a waste of money as simply burning banknotes.

By contrast, on the sole occasion when the British intervened militarily to end violence in one of their former colonies -- Sierra Leone in 2000 -- the results were dramatic. Freetown in the late 1990s had witnessed scenes out of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” But when I went there not long after the British intervention, it was safe to walk the streets.

Credit where credit is due. It was Blair who sent the troops to Sierra Leone and ended the anarchy there. So I don’t begrudge him his visit to Freetown last week. Moreover, Blair proceeded to give a speech about Africa that was one of the best I have heard from a Western leader. “Africa,” he declared, “has been a prime example of a foreign policy that has been thoroughly interventionist. I believe in the power of political action to make the world better and the moral obligation to use it.”

Great stuff. And pure Wilberforce.

Yet, he nearly spoiled it all by succumbing to the most widespread confusion that currently exists in the minds of Western liberals: that we can simultaneously eliminate global poverty and combat global climate change.

In a week when even President Bush seemed to concede the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, it would have been good if Blair could have admitted the truth. As Asia is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, eliminating poverty means massively increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Africa, by contrast, is making a major environmental contribution by consistently failing to achieve sustainable growth. Just take a look at the data on per capita CO2 emissions. Sure enough, this is another of the many tables in which Africa shows up at the bottom. Of the lowest 20 polluters in the world, no fewer than 15 are African. Go Africa! To save the planet, all we need is 100 years of African-style stagnation in the rest of the world.

As the careers of Wilberforce and Blair illustrate, Africa has always been good at generating hot air, particularly from the mouths of evangelically inclined Englishmen. Happily, it is only the moral climate that such emissions tend to change.

nferguson@latimescolumnists.com


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