In the wake of the awful attacks of Sept. 11, former British prime minister Tony Blair's passionate denunciation of impoverishment in Africa as "a scar on the conscience of the world" convinced many that the West would propel the issue of mass poverty and injustice to the top of the international agenda in the cause of a more stable world.
This week's news only confirms that it was a misplaced hope. Not a single country in sub-Saharan Africa has met the criteria set by the UN's millennium development goals on poverty alleviation, the centerpiece of the project. Some observers believe the number of poor, and the intensity of the poverty, has actually risen in almost all countries.
In truth there was never any real prospect that Western governments, which have gleefully presided over the creation of new classes of the super-super-rich, would use their considerable influence to push African leaders to pursue policies which would shift resources away from the rapacious national elites toward the poor.
Nor was it likely the West would permit Africa to stray from the neoliberal orthodoxies prescribed for the continent by the World Bank and the IMF. These policies have generated wealth for elites and created economic growth in a few countries, but have proved over two decades singularly unable to reduce the human misery afflicting hundreds of millions.
After many false starts, the millennium project, launched with huge fanfare in 2000, was meant to be the definitive development compact, a blueprint to substantially reduce the extreme ravages of poverty by 2015. But now it is sputtering. People are being lifted out of extreme poverty at less than 1 percent a year, which makes even Bono's 2003 warning that Africa would take 100 years to meet these goals seem optimistic.
Abutting virtually every African slum are the castles of the unimaginably rich. There is little incentive for those who hold the reins of power to redirect investments away from themselves to the very poor, given the abiding conviction on the continent that they have an unlimited capacity to weather their punishing adversities -- with the help of repressive security systems, of course.
But the poor do not always tolerate such inhumanity. There are mini-revolts brewing in many places. In Kenya, for instance, the Mungiki sect, which has tens of thousands of members and is loosely fashioned on the Mau Mau freedom movement, is pushing for land redistribution and a return to traditional values. In the last two months this sect, which raises funds from protection rackets, has killed more than a dozen policemen and beheaded 20 civilians, hoisting some of their heads in front of government offices.
G8 approved plans are not going to end poverty. Africa needs strong, revolutionary leaders popular enough to put pressure on both their elites and international partners to modify their policies, not only in the interest of humanity but also of security and stability. But it is well-nigh impossible for such leaders to get elected.
In the shadow of Sept. 11, aid increasingly becomes an instrument of anti-terrorism strategy. This means that the US and Britain in particular are ready to countenance wars of aggression and other human-rights abuses by governments which are partners in the war on terror -- as recently witnessed when Ethiopia invaded Somalia and installed a client regime with US and British support, bringing massive bombing to the capital. Uganda has also committed appalling rights abuses against its northerners.
None of these crimes elicited a peep from Western leaders, who portray themselves as embarked on a mission to civilize, informed by deeply held humanistic values.
In the end, only Africa's own leaders and people can address its rawest suffering. Donors have a minor but vital role to play, but they must get this role right, and that includes recognizing that what Africa needs most of all is space to formulate its own policies. To determine what these might be, the donors need to radically alter their approach and engage first and foremost with the grassroots.
Despite the rhetoric, Africa's voice is rarely heard. It's the statements of its leaders that reach donors' ears, not the anguish and aspirations of its people.
Can the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown make a difference? After the multiple promises Blair made and betrayed, no one will want to get too excited about his successor.
He did move immediately to merge the aid and trade departments, which will bring much-needed synergy on two crucial issues. He has also made the extraordinary appointment to the Africa portfolio of Mark Malloch Brown. The former UN deputy secretary-general has proved his capacity to turn bold visions into reality, as when, in 2005, he rescued the battered leadership of his boss, then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and then audaciously challenged the US policy under US President George W. Bush.
Both these Browns are likely to be more firmly committed to the rule of law in resolving international disputes, but they will also have to shed some of their conviction in the power of the free market -- even when it is working well -- to uplift the poor.
Salim Lone is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya. He spoke this week at the 50th anniversary of the Society for International Development at The Hague.
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