I went to the Republic of Congo – Congo Brazzaville – during a trip to the region last week which originally had a different purpose. I wrote a few pieces for various English and French language newspapers and websites – here’s The Guardian and here’s the The New Statesman – so I won’t repeat myself. Do take a look and let me have your thoughts if you have the time. For full disclosure, I arranged the articles with the newspapers before I left, I was not paid by any other commercial or government interest; I was not paid by anyone for any work done in Congo-Brazzaville and quite specifically nor were my expenses paid by consultants working for the Congo-B government. The opinions in the pieces were subject to no-one’s interference and were mine alone.
I’ve been going to central Africa for 15 years now, usually a couple of times each year for a week or so each time. Sometimes I write about stuff I come across, sometimes not. Always, I get to meet all sorts of folk from presidents to warlords, child soldiers and women who’ve been the subject of their terrible attacks; businesspeople, artists, government civil servants, local planners – you get the drift.
A few years ago, I published this at this website, along with a few other things. It was evidence of, essentially, the outrageous removal of billions of dollars of value from the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Congo-Kinshasa. It became a business story across the world and in the City of London; a billion dollars in compensation changed hands, a huge FTSE-100 miner delisted, prime ministers and the G8 became involved; the whole thing became central in that country’s presidential election, Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel followed-on; the last was especially gratifying. Here’s a good description of the essentials by someone who knows the region well.
It was all worthwhile, although quite risky at the time as I had a billionaire’s lawyers threatening to take my house away for a while. The thing to remember in these circumstances is that, as a famous lawyer once said to me, if your words have the merit of being true then you should be OK.
Having become controversial in the UK for unrelated reasons, and having left politics altogether, I’m still gripped by a part of the world – central Africa – which has so much astonishing promise yet where people have the hardest of times sometimes just staying alive. These days, I’m particularly interested in the relationship between democracy as we know it and human development. I often get asked to talk to people about it and it’s always a great privilege to share ideas with Africans who are now, or might be in future, in a position to help give the continent the bright future everyone deserves.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that a fair amount of damage is being done to African prospects by the unrealistic timescales and templates for democracy many Northern campaigners and commentators want to overlay upon Africa. There seems too much self-indulgent outrage around about standards of democracy and too little brainpower put into considering how the North should best conduct its relationships with emerging nations of varying hues whose early days of democracy were sometimes, as with the Democratic Republic of Congo, brought to shuddering halt by old colonial powers who couldn’t let go.
There’s certainly too much emphasis, in public dialogue at least, placed upon development aid and too little upon how stability, transparency and the rule of law can help drive proper investment and economic growth. I have a feeling that the aid industry in the UK is now so large that the (almost always white) people’s careers it sustains here has taken on more importance for many than the good it does (and sometimes doesn’t) do in Africa.
Anyway, if you’re interested, there’s a big democracy/development – chicken/egg literature base out there. It’s worthwhile starting with some straightforward Amartya Sen stuff from the late 90s and thinking about whether his decision – in the absence of hard economic evidence of the effect of new democracy on development – to assert democracy as an inherent ‘good’ didn’t mis-direct the North’s development effort towards democratising Africa in our own image so that we could benefit, rather than working much harder at understanding properly the things we can do which will help Africa prosper in the medium to long term.
I’m writing some longer, research-based pieces now and over the next few months, so do drop me a line if you’re interested. It’s always good to chat!