Hilary Benn, MP - Commissioner of the Commission for Africa, Secretary of State for International Development
Ann McKechin, MP
Hilary Benn MP, Secretary of State for International Development, examines the content of the Commission for Africa Report and the UK response to it.
The seventh and final meeting in the series was held on Thursday the 17th of March 2005. The meeting was chaired by Ann McKechin. The speaker was Hilary Benn.
1. Hilary Benn began by noting that the Commission for Africa (CfA) Report described the condition of Africa as the greatest tragedy of our time. The purpose of the meeting was thus to reflect on the Report and to discuss how to address the recommendations which it contained. He noted that the process of writing the Report had been remarkable and that there had been a great deal of passion and commitment from the Commissioners involved.
2. Hilary Benn then went on to explain that he addressed the audience in two capacities. One as a Commissioner the other as the UK Secretary of State for International Development. Speaking as a Commissioner, he felt very proud of what the report said and the process that had led to its publication. He expressed his gratitude for the support the Commission had received from the Secretariat. Speaking as the British Minister responsible for development, Hilary Benn stated that he was delighted with what the report had to say, but that he was also acutely conscious of the challenges that the development community now faced in taking forward the recommendations in this very special year.
3. Hilary Benn then went on to indicate that when the idea of the CfA was launched, there was some scepticism felt by the Commissioners and the development community more widely. Some people, particularly in Africa argued that with the African Union (AU), NEPAD and the G8 Africa Action Plan already in place, the establishment of the CfA could devalue these other efforts. Others argued that the world already knew what needed to be done. Hilary Benn stressed that it was a tribute to the work of the CfA that by the end of the process, the scepticism had largely faded away and had been replaced with a clear understanding of the purpose of the CfA which ultimately was about helping to generate the political will to act.
4. Hilary Benn noted that when, towards the end of the process, he discussed the Report with Wiseman Nkuhlu, the NEPAD Secretariat Chairman, in Johannesburg, Nkulu had said to him that since the launce of NEPAD in 2001, Africa had been trying very hard to communicate to the rest of the world news about the processes of change that were beginning to take place. There was progress underway and Africa was a place of hope, and that Africa was a continent full of potential as well as problems. Despite these efforts, this message did not seem to be getting through to people in the developed world. Wiseman Nkuhlu therefore hoped that the CfA would argue the case both for the reality of the changes that were taking place in Africa, but also to try and get the message across to donors that business as usual would not suffice. Fundamental changes in policy and approach were required not just in donor's development policy, but also in the relationship that donors had with Africa.
5. On the process of writing the report, Hilary Benn noted that the CfA set out with three things in mind.
a) The recognition that there was a process of change in Africa
b) This meant that there was an opportunity to act by working together to change the condition of Africa
c) The international community needed to seize this opportunity
The CfA was also under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing the development community especially as on current trends, least progress would be made in Sub-Saharan Africa in achieving the MDGs. In some countries, these would be missed by over 100 years, a reality that was unacceptable and not what 189 countries signed up to at the Millennium Summit in 2000.
6. In illustrating the process of change that was occurring in Africa, Hilary Benn offered the fact that over the last decade, 16 countries had experienced growth rates of above 4%. The AU had also moved from the policy of non-interference of its predecessor the OAU to a policy of non-indifference towards African problems. The Africa peer review mechanism was an example of the AU's commitment within NEPAD. Furthermore governance was improving in a number of countries, including a growth in democracy and multi-party elections. These achievements required the recognition that this process of change had begun.
7. Hilary Benn then went on to stress that the report was the result of intensive consultation and discussion in 49 African countries, every G8 country, China, India and Europe and had benefited from a significant volume of submissions. Above all, the report was a call for action and it was unequivocal in the fact that the future of Africa lay correctly in the hands of Africans. He indicated that the CfA had conducted a poling exercise as part of the Commission's work and asked respondents to identify who they held responsible for the state of their country. The majority answered that they held their government accountable which was encouraging as this was where accountability needed to lie.
8. Hilary Benn explained that the Report argued that the foundations of Africa's development lay in governance and in peace and security. The Report supported a strong package of measures for investing in people, for reducing poverty and for generating growth. It suggested that there were six main elements that were necessary to turn Africa around.
a) Firstly, it was necessary to ensure good governance, capacity and accountability. The report set out a practical set of measures to invest in people to build their capacity to deliver in national and local government. This was partly about ensuring the capacity was available to do it but also that people had expectations of their Governments. To illustrate, the Democratic Republic of Congo had never really had a national government which meant that there was virtually no expectation on the part of people of what government should deliver. There was therefore a need for demand for Governments to act in concert with appropriate capacity to enable it to respond.
b) Peace and Security formed a second strong theme of the report. There were fewer conflicts on the continent than a decade ago and the AU and NEPAD were taking more responsibility for dealing with conflict and potential conflict. To illustrate, the response of the AU and the West African States to the events in Togo proved to be a significant moment which resulted in a profound change. While these changes were not occurring everywhere, the progress that was made needed to be acknowledged. There was also a need to address the control of the use of small arms and conflict over natural resources which fuelled some of Africa's conflicts.
c) The importance of investing in people was a third very strong theme of the report. This was linked to the issue of capacity. Education and health were the key to holding governments to account and people were at the centre of the Commission's report. For example, all children needed to be able to go to school which was part of the reason why the elimination of school fees was recommended. The Report also addressed the need to support governments that wanted to eliminate health fees which acted as a barrier for accessing primary health care health for too many. This was why the CfA addressed the need to reverse the decline in investment in water and sanitation which was necessary for reducing the number of children who died before their 5th birthdays and for encouraging female child enrolment.
The need to invest in these two important factors lay behind Commissions recommendation for a doubling of aid to Africa. This went beyond just increasing the amount of aid but also the effectiveness of aid, not least to address the scepticism of those who believed hat aid did not work. It was also necessary however to make aid more predictable and reliable to give developing country governments the confidence to make long-term investments and commitments.
d) Fourthly, economic growth. Without economic growth, Africa would not have the chance to earn and trade itself out of poverty which would be the key to changing the lives of people in Africa in the long term. In order to facilitate this, there was a need to get rid of export subsidies, harmful tariff barriers and to increase market access to allow developing countries in Africa and elsewhere the time and space to adapt to a more open and fairer world trade system. It was also necessary to consider what could be done to improve the climate for investment in Africa and what Africa could do for itself to generate greater regional and economic integration. One example of this was investment in infrastructure and the transport infrastructure more generally. To illustrate, while India's transport infrastructure was designed to connect one part of the country to another, Africa's had been designed to get natural resources out of country and way from the continent as quickly as possible. This was one of the reasons why intra-Africa travel was often time consuming and costly. While it cost US1500 to transport a car from Japan to Abidjan, it would cost US$5000 to transport the same car from Abidjan to Addis Ababa. The high cost of transport was thus a significant barrier to economic growth and development in Africa. It was therefore necessary to no longer rely on the private sector to deal with transport infrastructure and that increased investment was needed in this sector.
e) Fifth, more and fairer trade which was necessary as it opened up significant potential for Africa's future development. Other issues such as rules of origin and customs reforms also needed however to be addressed.
f) The sixth key recommendation concerned resources as the World needed to not only to double aid but also to consider the way in which it was used with relation to predictability and reliability but also with relation to the need to ensure that African countries were given the time and space to determine their own priorities. It was therefore not appropriate to impose specific policy conditionalities. In support of this, the UK had made a commitment at the High Level Forum in Paris in which it stated that it would no longer link the provision of its aid to specific policy conditions in particular in controversial areas such as privatisation and trade liberalisation. This decision was taken because i) the evidence was very mixed of its appropriateness ii) this was the wrong place to have the conversation about development. This would be better had at the outcome stage after a country had a chance to set its own priorities.
9. In addressing how the British government had reacted to the Report, Hilary Benn noted that the Prime Minister had stated that the report had been welcomed absolutely and that the government accepted that there were areas in the Report's recommendations that went beyond current UK government policy. On the issue of tackling corruption, as Africa tackled the domestic system to ensure that more people were caught and penalised for corrupt practices, developed countries, including the UK had to honour their part of the bargain and ensure that any funds that were illegally extracted, were located, frozen and repatriated to those from whom they were stolen. This required the correct legislation and framework to be set up in developed countries to ensure that this was honoured.
10. A second major issue for the UK was that of fragile states. Variously termed, the fact remained that significant numbers of people in Africa lived in States that didn't function effectively. The challenge was therefore to engage appropriately with these states.
11. In terms of the UK's development program, Hilary Benn indicated that UK was on track to meet the Commission's recommendation to double aid to Africa by 2010 and that the UK's spending of £650 million in Africa in 2003 rose to over £830 million in 2004 and would be over £1 billion in 2005. This presented more than a 50% increase in 3 years. The UK had also set a timetable to meet the UN's 0.7% target by 2013. The proposal for the International Finance Facility proposed by the UK's Chancellor also represented the most advanced and feasible option for frontloading the funds needed to meet the MDGs. The UK's proposal for Multilateral Debt Relief also meant that the UK was unilaterally paying their share (10%) of the multilateral debts of poor African countries to the Africa Development Bank and the World Bank.
12. The UK also very strongly endorsed what the Report had to say about Africa's need for the process in governance and tackling corruption. In terms of looking forward, Hilary Benn stressed the CfA Report was not a report to the Government of the United Kingdom but a report to the World. He indicated that the UK would now take it to the G8, to the EU and to the Millennium Summit and to state to people, that if they accepted the analysis present in the report, then the challenge then became what to do about it. Key issues were
a) Whether people could be convinced of the need to double aid
b) Whether people could be convinced of the need for 100% multilateral debt relief for all
c) Whether there would be a clear signal to make trade fairer
Hilary Benn noted that while the next steps would be a struggle and there were no certainties about the outcomes, one thing that was clear was however that considerable effort has been expended in attempting to assure that Africa could be turned around. There was a need to be optimistic and realistic.
13. In the discussion that followed several key issues were raised. Many in the audience commended the report for what it added to the debate
a) The way in which the report addressed culture and religion was important as it gave recognition to the way things worked on the African continent
b) The recognition given to infrastructure and higher education and science were also commended
c) The statement "forcing poor countries to liberalise through trade agreements is the wrong approach for achieving poverty reduction and growth in Africa and elsewhere". This was argued to be a very important statement from the Commission which contradicted a lot of current practice
d) The recognition of the Report that it was indeed viable to create effective social protection systems even in the poorest countries to reduce chronic malnutrition was also commended. This was considered a breakthrough recommendation especially as no other international entity and declared this so clearly
14. It was also suggested however that the report did not give sufficient attention to the agriculture and the agricultural sector and that food security was not well addressed. This was felt to be an omission especially as while it was addressed in the context of trade, it was not explicitly addressed in the context of poverty reduction. Agriculture was also an issue that was relatively neglected in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) which implicated on direct budgetary support for the sector. Hilary Benn stressed however, that PRSPs needed to reflect countries' domestic priorities and not donor preferences. This was also how direct budget support needed to be allocated.
15. One audience member argued that the Achilles Heal of the Report was the lack of effective proposals to deal with corruption without which aid would be drastically reduced and the participation of other donors would be reduced. Hilary Benn reiterated that it was necessary for people to hold their own governments and institutions to account and that donor programs needed to support African countries efforts to address corruption. Donor countries also needed to honour their own responsibilities
17. Hilary Benn agreed that any monitoring system of African and donor countries necessarily required the input of civil society and that civil society organisations were fundamental not least for building the capacity of society to have expectations of government.