Making poverty history: We cannot fail Africa again

EVERYONE has an image of Africa. Mine is of a woman called Aker. I met her in Sudan, in 1991, at a staging post somewhere on the road between famine and oblivion. Her sister had died along the way, she said, and her husband had fled.

By Mary Riddel

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Published: Mon 4 Jul 2005, 10:20 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:50 PM

But she had carried on, past the silvery, baked corpses of camels and goats, with two babies in her arms. One was her sister's orphaned child, the other her son.

'He will be all right; he will get well now,' Aker said, as she tried to spoon gruel into his mouth. In the feeding shelter, 50 or so other women pressed food on children with ancient faces and glazed eyes, knowing, like her, that it was mostly too late. There were no lamentations and no noise, beyond the buzz of flies, to disturb the lassitude of the afternoon. The aid worker with me began to cry and the photographer's camera hung untouched from his shoulder.

But Aker held his sleeve as he turned to go. 'Take my baby's picture,' she said. She and I were both aware that her child would be buried long before his plight impelled Western newspaper readers to give many tens of thousands of pounds to Unicef. These givers hoped to preserve lives, and no doubt they did so. Maybe they had more grandiose visions, too. Save Africa. Make poverty history. If so, they dreamed in vain.

I had not looked at the photo in years, but I found it yesterday, in a newspaper cuttings book from an age before white wristbands. If Aker's son had lived, he would be 15 and a contemporary of teenagers schooled to care about him. Yesterday, a vast blur of the newly politicised converged on Hyde Park, Edinburgh and Live8 venues across the world.

Today, these students of compassion are gone again, their identity uncertain and their aim unclear. The swarm, composed of celebrants or mourners, was as ephemeral as a dead child's memory and as amorphous as Africa itself. But yesterday was also, possibly, a beginning. Young people, and their parents, know now about aid, trade and debt. Some could quote the daily subsidy of an EU cow (£1.50), as against the three billion people living on less than £1.20. Or that HIV/Aids has driven the average life expectancy in several African countries from 60 years to less than 40.

Real anoraks might know that the nightly room rate for the Gleneagles Hotel, the mission centre from which Africa and the planet are to be saved, is £685 with a round of golf or a falconry lesson thrown in. The trick is to grasp just enough G8-ery.

But the G8 confusion is not just about Africa. Are this week's protests designed to galvanise politicians or, as at Seattle and Genoa, to smash their aims? Was Live8 just a party, as Bob Geldof suggested, and, if so, what's to celebrate?

The state of Africa and the planet hardly warrant a knees-up and nor does the legacy of LiveAid.

There is nothing necessarily inspiring, either, about the British in a spasm of togetherness. Lacking both the weird evangelical fervour that binds America, and the more liberal theology that preceded it, Britons need others icons. A society that has grown weary of God and politics has few talismans against disaster.

In Britain, disgracefully non-obsessed by dead Iraqis, Tony Blair has moved more smoothly from harm to balm. Shock and awe are out. Alms for the poor are in. True, the Prime Minister's Christian ethos embraces both muscular and nurturing solutions, but that is quite a change.

Africa has not, until recently, been a priority. But that is not an excuse for cynicism. Something strange and positive may be emerging. The electorate is growing more sophisticated and politicians more persuasive in their righteousness. Both Gordon Brown's speech to the Fabians last week and his later lecture to Unicef were a rehearsal of humanity at its most raw.

He had spoken to sick children. He had held the hand of a young man with Aids and acknowledged a bond of brotherhood more potent (as he did not say) than he had ever felt for his neighbour at No 10. The Chancellor, no stranger to bereavement, had seen how it feels to die.

It is not a fashionable vision. For weeks, commentators have invited readers to think of many Africas. Prosperous Africa. Corrupt Africa. Indolent Africa, too slow to create cartels for coffee. An Africa that converts its aid into Mercedes for powerful crooks. An Africa where bureaucrats sit on plastic sofas and do bent deals from offices papered with Oxbridge degree certificates. Ill and starving children belong on old charity envelopes, sparsely filled. They are very last century. Quite mawkish, even. But when I think of Africa, I think of Aker's baby. I am glad that such images may finally be driving economic policy. When protesters march and politicians are inspired not by flawed intelligence but by the cameos that mourning women want the world to see, then something might be happening.

The detail may be vague, and the obstacles almost insuperable, but this time the West cannot afford to fail. If there is no result to match the promise of this week, Africa will surely engineer its own survival. But we, the dream-brokers, might as well give up.

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